Sultana Parvin is a mother of two living in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. She is petite, soft-spoken and wears a colorful headscarf. She is also a star information technology (IT) freelancer in Bangladesh.
In 2014, Parvin was named Bangladesh’s top female freelancer in Bangladesh by BASIS, the country’s IT industry association. She has done more than 100 freelance IT jobs for clients around the world who hired her through websites such as ODesk and Fiverr.
It’s been a quick rise for someone who didn’t know much about computers until 2012. Parvin, 42, was a self-described housewife of 20 years who wanted to make extra money for her children’s education, but couldn’t work since her family moved frequently due to her husband’s military job.
She read about freelance IT jobs in newspapers and then enrolled in short IT courses in Chittagong. Twelve days after creating her profile on ODesk, she got her first job; it paid $5. A year later, Parvin earned $6,000; not a small sum in a country whose GDP per capita is about $1,000.
Parvin is just one of thousands of IT freelancers in Bangladesh who are thriving on work from clients in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world.
Bangladesh is known for its garment industry, which employs millions. But it was the third-largest source country for freelancers for the California-based website Upwork (previously known as Elance-ODesk when two companies merged), according to a 2014 A.T. Kearney report.
There were more than 650,000 freelancers in Bangladesh registered on Upwork alone, though their skills and track records vary. In 2013, Bangladeshi freelancers on Upwork earned $21 million. That figure has only grown since then.
Freelancing is an important source of income for Bangladesh’s large population of people under 25 who make up half of the country’s population of 160 million. Freelancers can work from anywhere with a reliable Internet, so the work is attractive to people in smaller cities and towns.
In Dhaka, the crowded capital, freelancers can avoid commuting for hours in notorious traffic jams. And mothers such as Parvin can work from home with flexible hours. Some enterprising freelancers have also opened businesses and hired other contractors.
"People are going for income security, not job security. It’s more about having multiple streams of revenue,” said Saidur Khan, a former freelancer who is now Upwork’s business development manager in Dhaka. “Half of our freelancers want to go freelance full-time. If we nurture freelancers today, they will become entrepreneurs.”
Higher skilled IT freelancers can make $9 an hour for web programming and up to $40 an hour for more advanced work. By comparison, a job in an IT call center at a big Bangladeshi mobile phone company pays around $2 an hour.
Some freelance jobs are small and take less than a day. Other contracts can last for years. Freelance IT work includes data entry, website and software design, mobile application development, graphic design, search engine optimization, social media marketing and more.
Nazmul Hossain, a 28-year-old freelancer based in the southern city of Khulna, started freelancing in 2009 when he was a college student. He taught himself IT skills through online tutorials and websites. Hossain has a university degree in genetic engineering, but job opportunities are limited in Khulna. IT freelancing has changed that.
He makes about $1,500 a month and did not have to re-locate to Dhaka or go abroad to find work.
“Nowadays, I have been contributing to the economy and that’s better than going abroad,” said Hossain.
Yet Hossain acknowledges that Bangladeshi parents are skeptical of freelancing and would prefer their children have traditional careers. Reliable electricity and Internet can also be a challenge, especially in rural areas. Strong English language and communication skills are needed but can also be lacking for many.
There is strong demand for learning IT skills, so technical colleges and private institutes are offering more courses and workshop.
Syed Akhter Hossain heads the computer science and engineering department at Daffodil University in Dhaka. Enrollment in computer classes has mushroomed in recent years. Fewer than 100 students were studying computer science and technology at Daffodil in 2010. Today there 800 to 1,200 students enrolled each year.
But Hossain said some students don’t take their studies seriously and drop out because they can make money freelancing.
This is encouraging and discouraging at the same time, he says. “Freelancing is killing the thought process,” added Hossain. He emphasized that there needs to be a balance between earning and learning.