The freelance army: Why many Indians are choosing part-time over full-time

By: | Updated: December 9, 2018 3:12 AM

An increasing number of professionals in India are moving from full-time employment and opting for freelance work projects.

The young workforce is keen on working on smaller projects or working for several companies at once rather than being tied to one firm.

When Rachna Kalra quit the publishing industry in 2017 after a decade-and-a-half of working with all the top publishers, it was a decision that was driven more out of a health scare than boredom with routine work. After taking a short break, Kalra bounced back to work, this time choosing projects she liked and executing them the way she wanted. “I entered publishing in 2004 and what I enjoyed most over the years was planning campaigns, working closely with authors, media, partners, etc. However, as the years went by and I grew in my role, I realised I was spending more time on strategy, budgets, team management and so on. While all these are critical to the running of a department/business, it wasn’t what I really enjoyed spending most of my time on or wanted to do for the rest of my work life. So after a year’s break, I decided consulting would work best for me,” says the 48-year-old Delhi resident.

Kalra is among the growing tribe of professionals who are slowly moving from mainstream work and opting for freelance projects. When KellyOCG, a global workforce solutions provider, came up with a survey in April of how the ‘gig economy’ (a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs) was thriving in the Asia-Pacific region, it showed that a large percentage (84%) of talent managers hire or use gig workers—this is the highest in the world (the global average stands at 65%).


It’s no wonder then that the gig economy is growing in India. The young workforce is keen on working on smaller projects or working for several companies at once rather than being tied to one firm. Gig work, also known as free agency, is any type of work in which talent is paid for a discreet task, project or for a certain period of time. This includes diversified workers with many sources of incomes, contract workers, freelancers, small business owners, temporary workers and moonlighters.

The government, too, has engaged gig workers in the past for its flagship projects like Digital India, Swachh Bharat and Smart Cities. “The gig economy is a shared on-demand model, wherein freelancers or free agents take up gigs. These freelancers may take up different gigs at the same point of time or in addition to their conventional job,” says Francis Padamadan, senior director, Asia-Pacific, Recruitment Process Outsourcing and Business Process Services, KellyOCG.

Its survey results show that in terms of skillset, information technology (41%), marketing (23%) and design (21% ) are leading the way when it comes to the percentage of global talent managers hiring gig workers. As per Truelancer (a platform with two lakh registered freelancers), data, content writing, software development, digital marketing and graphic design are the most lucrative areas. According to an estimate by Truelancer, India had close to 15 million freelancers in 2015, next only to the US (53 million). The figures, released in 2016, showed that 65% of Truelancer users were Indians, with the majority of them belonging to areas as diverse as IT, mobile app development, designing and content writing.

Changing landscape
In India, the gig economy has picked up pace over the past three-four years. In 2016, consulting firm PwC launched Talent Exchange, a first-of-its-kind marketplace that connects independent talent with short-term work opportunities at the firm. Professional services firm Ernst & Young, too, has a database of a few hundred freelancers whom they hire regularly for various projects. Several IT firms like TCS, Infosys and Microland also regularly hire independent consultants at all levels for multiple projects.
It’s a trend that has been fuelled by internet startups, as the shared economy model of the gig economy helps startups save hiring costs such as paying employee benefits. “A majority of talent managers are leveraging gig workers in their teams and departments to drive efficiency, innovation and competitive advantage,” says Padamadan of KellyOCG.

Freelancing, till now, was thought of as a refuge for only those who weren’t able to find full-time jobs or needed flexible working hours. But that doesn’t hold true any more. What, till a few years back, wasn’t the first go-to option for many is fast becoming a sought-after employment choice. And there are several reasons behind it. Downsizing by companies is one of them. Take the case of Faizal Khan. The 55-year-old journalist from Delhi started freelancing eight years back when he was out of a job. Soon, he started liking the freedom that small projects offered him. The ability to say ‘no’ to assignments and take vacations as per his choice was a boon after three decades of regular employment. “I am my own organisation and it allows me flexibility in functioning. I might have earned more if I was working full time, but I love the way I do things now,” says Khan, who has refused a few job offers that came his way in the past few years.

As per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a business and economic database and research company, there are currently 31 million unemployed Indians looking for a job. In such a scenario, gigs offer flexibility to employees, as well as employers. “Candidates will pick up gigs in India increasingly over the next few years not just due to unemployment, but also due to the accompanying benefits,” says Padamadan.

The flexibility to work outside the rigid ecosystem of a workplace is also an attraction not just for Khan’s generation, but millennials as well. Not just that, freelancing offers variety in terms of work projects they can pick up as well, enabling exposure to multiple clients and work cultures, which boosts their careers in the long term. “The online world allows them to make meaningful connections that could increase their potential,” says Ashish Agarwal, founder, WORKNRBY, a Jaipur-based hyper-local job search platform.

Freelancing definitely has its perks. For one, you are your own boss. “Being a consultant allows me to be selective and specific about my scope of work, role and commitments,” says Delhi-based Kalra, who is currently working on a consulting project with Hachette India, wherein she covers publicity and marketing campaigns for pre-agreed book titles from the publisher’s list.

Freelancers also have greater autonomy over how, when and where to work. “Our research shows that seven out of 10 talent managers using freelancers see the employer-worker relationship shifting, with talent asserting more leverage,” says Padamadan of KellyOCG.

The gig economy is also aided by the skill supply gap. Employers often rue that there aren’t enough skilled workers and those looking for employment can’t find jobs. For a full-time role, however, employers need a bouquet of skills. “They also need to factor in the cost of hiring and return-on-investment in the long term. Further, some talent requirements that were not part of the hiring projections may crop up based on exigent or client project work. In such a scenario, hiring a gig worker on a short-term basis for a project or fixed term not only provides better return on investment, but also agility and scalability,” says Padamadan.

Platform providers
Technology is greatly aiding the gig economy, with several globally popular sites such as Upwork, Freelancer and Elance providing users their choice of work. Closer home, too, several startups working on the model of providing projects to clients or connecting companies to talent for limited-period projects have sprung up in the past few years.

Jaipur-based marketplace MissionKya is one such startup that works on bridging the gap between service providers and job seekers. When Ozyveg, an online fruit and vegetable seller, contacted MissionKya, it was spending Rs 60,000 a month as salary of an employee on a poorly-managed social media page. That employee was replaced by talent provided by MissionKya. “It cost the company three times less than their original institutional cost,” says Ayush Goyal, founder, Jaipur-headquartered MissionKya, which has half-yearly and annual outsourcing contracts with several companies. “Clients send their requirements to us directly and, within three hours, we assign a freelance expert or agency for their project. The contract saves them from going to different vendors for different requirements,” says Goyal.

The company generated Rs 1 crore in 2016-17 and intends to grow by 200-300% in the coming year. “We plan to expand our reach to every tier II and III city of the country, as we already have a presence in tier I cities,” says the 23-year-old computer science engineer, adding, “Not everyone likes to hire experts on a full-time basis for a task that has a small lifecycle… hence, freelancers are the best fit. And if an industry grows, so would the need for freelancers.” MissionKya, which started in 2016 with 150 users, today has 18,000 users, including some of India’s topnotch designers, developers and marketers.

There are other startups, too, identifying their own niche areas in providing talent. For example, when Pune-headquartered GigIndia, which provides micro-jobs to students, launched its portal in 2017, the focus was on providing financial stability to students by providing them small projects to earn from. The portal, which specifically targets the young workforce, provides various services to clients, from content creation to delivery. “For Alibaba’s Vmate (video platform), we provided content creators, video-makers and vloggers. The career portal, Youth4work, also availed our services to outsource bloggers to promote their services online for branding purposes,” says Sahil Sharma, CEO, GigIndia.

The company, which charges primarily from companies for the talent they provide, has close to 2.5 lakh gig performers registered with them. Sharma co-founded the firm along with Aditya Shirole while both were still studying at the Pune Institute of Computer Technology in 2017. “We raised our seed round of investment from prominent investors from China, Japan, Ganesh Ventures and M&S Partners last year, which gave us the financial boost to scale our business exponentially,” says 22-year-old Sharma.

By hiring freelancers, companies are benefitting, as they can now outsource some activities. When Jubilant FoodWorks, which holds the master franchise for Domino’s Pizza in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and also for Dunkin’ Donuts in India, had to make its mobile app more user-friendly, it contacted online portal Indiez, which specialises in providing technology solutions. “We are a global community of the top 1% software freelancers,” says Nitesh Agrawal, co-founder and CEO, Washington-based Indiez, which built the Domino’s Pizza mobile platform using its tech members. “The idea was to enable people to work from anywhere, any time and on things they like to work on. This is often termed as the future of work, where everyone will be free to work on what they want,” he says.

Besides Indian firms, Indiez, which started in 2016, has tie-ups with a few US-based IT services firms as well, wherein it helps them with specific skillsets. With 10 freelancers in mid-2016, it has today grown to a user base of 4,000 freelancers. “We bootstrapped Indiez for a year and then picked up a seed round of $50,0000 from veteran investor Haresh Chawla,” Agrawal says. Interestingly, the Indiez business model doesn’t merely work as an intermediary, but as a responsible party. It provides a member/team to a company and, if they don’t deliver, Indiez is taken to task, not the freelancer.

Tushar Kant, a 27-year-old BTech graduate from IIT-Roorkee, vouches for these startups. Having started working on freelance projects while still in college, Delhi-based Kant believes the ecosystem offers him the flexibility “to work more and earn more”. He is associated as a freelance software consultant at Indiez and works on different projects. “Indiez is a great boon for freelancers like me who don’t want to engage much with clients. Indiez handles all the client communication, project definition and other specifics. So I can do what I love: focus on building great products,” says Kant, explaining, “When you give a project to Indiez, a team is assembled for the client and this team will specialise in the kind of product that a client wants to develop.”

Pay parity
As per a survey released in January by global digital payments giant PayPal, freelancers in India, on an average, earn about Rs 19 lakh per year. The survey, titled Insights into the Freelancers Ecosystem, reported that a significant 41% of Indian freelancers witnessed growth in 2017. It put web and mobile development, web designing, internet research and data entry as the key focus areas for Indian freelancers. Accounting, graphic design and consultancy were other important sectors.

As per the estimate, India is the largest freelancer market, with 10 million people freelancing. The survey highlighted that 23% earned in the range of Rs 40-Rs 45 lakh annually and 11% earned Rs 2.5 lakh or less annually. Around 13% earned between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 15 lakh every year compared to 23%, who took home Rs 2.5-Rs 5 lakh a year. Around 8% earned Rs 7.5-Rs 10 lakh annually, as per the report. The survey, conducted with 500 Indian freelancers from across India, found that they were below the age of 40 years and predominantly men.

Talking about the payment scenario, Agarwal of WORKNRBY says, “We charge a ‘take rate’ to the companies. Typically, our take rate is 30%—and 70% is disbursed to freelancers working on the project.” The April KellyOCG survey found that, globally, 43% of organisations engaging gig workers experience at least a 20% labour cost savings, with 72% saying that employing gig workers gives their organisation a competitive advantage.

Freelancers like Kant believe the more they work, the better they will earn. “Your earnings should not be a function of your designation and occupation. It should always be a function of the effort you are putting into your work. And working in a controlled office environment for 42 hours per week isn’t my idea of hard work,” says Kant, who puts in 60 hours per week.

The downside
The biggest disadvantage, though, remains in not having a fixed source of income. “The finances are always in a disarray. Payments get delayed and there is no guarantee that I will get work next month. So paying bills is a constant struggle,” says Delhi-based freelancer Khan. Plus, even if the remuneration is more than what a full-time employee will get for the same amount of work, it mostly “arrives late”. Working from home, says Khan, can also be “isolating” and you need to have “good contacts” to get continuous projects.

“As a freelancer, you have no interaction with the management, staff or other employees. Your workload and income may vary from month to month and can be difficult to predict, particularly in the early stages of your business,” says Agarwal of WORKNRBY.

Despite these drawbacks, however, industry experts maintain that the gig economy is here to stay. “The reason is simple,” says Padamadan of KellyOCG, adding, “Organisations get hard-to-find, as well as easily-available skills on an on-demand basis. Around 65% of hiring managers say the gig economy is rapidly becoming the new normal for how businesses organise work across the globe.”

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