Discrimination in the global workforce

ESL freelancers; English Native Freelancer

I should probably preface this article by stating that I am an ESL Freelancer, and I am by no means the best of the best. I’d like to carefully outline my experiences over the years, as well as what I’ve learned from other freelancers. I hope to get a discussion going on the current state of the online job market and theorize a bit on how we can dig out of current issues.

I started freelancing the day I turned 18, back in 2012. I Googled “Work online for money” and things just took off from there. Before I knew it, I was making some pretty insane income, at least relative to the $0/hr I was making up until that point. I had discovered the world of content writing and found it to be a great fit. At first, it was all sunshine and rainbows. Then I decided to push myself into deeper waters, in the hopes of even more financial success. I wanted to be a career freelancer.

That changed really fast. I realized that my initial employer, a middle-man content production company, was despised by the more serious online freelancing circles. The main point of contention was that these companies mainly hired third world freelancers, the bulk of whom came from India and Pakistan. Now I myself am East European, but the general consensus seemed to be that everyone east of the English Channel, and north of Oceania, was a freelance pariah.

It goes without saying that most content writing is done in English All content writers from around the globe invariably face this fact and decide what they’re going to do about it. Most of us decide to adapt by writing exclusively in English. More specifically, we write in American English. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.

But you simply can’t become an ENL speaker if you weren’t born in an English speaking country. For the longest time, I disagreed with this notion. I hoped that perhaps my American education, here on the Balkans, would make my writing equally valuable as that of a native-born Yankee.

The Internet disagreed with fervor. The first time I ever felt like I’d jumped into a pool of piranhas was when I tried to pass myself off as an ENL writer. I felt that I had the required skills, tone, and general vibe. I certainly had the accent – though that didn’t matter. I received hate and vitriol, as well as tons of seemingly substantiated implications that I should feel guilty for my transgressions. And I did feel guilty. I still do to this day.

So the conclusion was that ESL content producers were despised because they tried to pass for ENL. I thought to myself: “That’s understandable,” and proceeded to openly admit that I am an ESL writer, but bidding on jobs that necessitated a native speaker. I felt that my skills were adequate and my work ethic was proper.

That’s when things got really interesting. I received no hate at all from potential clients. Most of them were more than willing to give me a go. Some of them wanted to test me in advance. Some preferred to try my services out for a short time and see whether I am the right candidate for the job. Either way, I had a great time and felt very respected.

My peers, on the other hand, the very people who were in the same boat that I was, we’re taking shots left and right. “An obvious ESL writer, through and through.” “You don’t sound American.” “Write in your own language and f-off.” It was clear, and sometimes explicitly stated, that they were upset that ESL workers were taking away ENL job positions, and they weren’t happy about it. I understood their discomfort, but I disagreed with their entire premise, and here’s why:

Workers get paid for the work that they do – money is not their birthright.

The notion that third-world freelancers deserve less money because of where they were born is tantamount to the antiquated notion that women deserve to be paid less because they have “nothing to spend the money on.” There was a time, not too long ago, when employers took it upon themselves to openly assume that their female workers simply do not have any reason to have as much money and this was the general public consensus.

Thankfully, first and second wave feminism fixed this. The current progressive zeitgeist would never allow any employer to even imply that they’re taking into account how their employees spend their money. They pay for the manpower, and that’s the end of it.

Now back to ESL workers; there are two general implications that need to be picked apart. The first one is that, on average, an ESL worker will be less beneficial for an English position than an ENL one. The second one is that ESL workers should shy away from ENL jobs because of this implication.

I agree with the former, not so much with the latter. Yes, on average, American writers are better English writers than, say, Indian ones. But that’s a statistic. The implication that it is impossible for a third world individual to develop sufficient skills to excel at any skill, on par with a first world citizen, is unacceptably egregious.

And regarding the payment gap I mentioned, yes, it is true that third world workers charge a lot less than average. We’re well aware of that. But you need to understand that’s still well above average for us, and we’re quite happy to be appreciated for our work. The idea that we’re somehow devaluing the market is laughable – that’s how markets work. Undercutting and lowballing aren’t immoral, they’re basic methods of product marketing.

Still, the general consensus on the global online stage is that third world workers are simply less ethical. We get painted as money hungry, desperate and untrustworthy. I already mentioned Pakistani and Indian workers, and with good reason. While I get a lot of criticism for being East European, there’s no comparison to the hatred that workers of those particular countries receive in freelancing circles.

Beyond the “Indian Tech Support” stereotype and similar casual humor, there’s also a very deep-seated disdain for Indian/Pakistani freelancers. Not only are they unwanted in content production, where clients might simply be on the hunt for a native speaker, they are also considered persona-non-grata in web development, marketing, and design.

As a final point, I’d like to admit that I have had two separate horrible experiences with two separate Pakistani developers, where they were both in fact unethical. But the thing is, I’ve had the same experience with an American client. I created a fully functional applet for him, after which he promptly decided to renege, and flat out refused to pay me. And it’s also worth noting that I had an extremely pleasant experience with another Pakistani developer, for whom I wrote code, and it was one of the nicest work experiences of my life. My point is, your mileage will vary.

Far be it for me to suggest that the end of all discrimination needs to start now, so that I can get more work. I’m simply suggesting that there is a very specific, very clear discrimination in the online market. Here’s to hoping that we’ll unlearn some of these nasty biases sooner rather than later.


The story was written by Viktor, a freelance content writer, and marketing rookie.


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The stigma of the ESL Freelancer

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