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A virtual assistant in the Philippines is the key ingredient in the hustle culture

May 30, 2023 Philippines Emerging Markets

Christine Carrillo, an executive, and businesswoman residing in Hawaii, tweeted a positive message about her virtual assistant in the Philippines.

The executive assistant is a CEO’s most underappreciated asset, according to Carrillo. Carrillo claims that she manages a tech firm, mentors seven CEOs each month, writes, surfs, cooks, and reads every day, as well as taking an “intense” writing course. What kind of swing is that? By delegating to her assistant all tasks, including research and company due diligence, according to Carrillo.

The barrage of comments was conflicting. Some followers were anxious to learn how they, too, might accomplish the same. Others had criticisms. One of them responded, “Sounds like you have a Chief of Staff, not an EA.” “Perhaps you ought to consider upgrading the title of your rockstar!?” (Remainder of World’s request for remark to Carrillo went unanswered.)

Not everyone in the sector is dissatisfied. Angela Monta, a virtual assistant from San Mateo, Philippines, works five days a week through the night for $1,200 a month and couldn’t be happier.

The 25-year-old was employed by the Philippine government just over a year ago. The lengthy journey to work made her feel burdened, and she was concerned that she may bring Covid-19 home to her family. Monta decided to leave her employment as a result, and she has been working virtually as an executive assistant to a venture financier situated in California since February 2022.

Monta is one of an increasing number of Filipinos who work virtually for new business owners, frequently in the United States. The office grind is carried out by assistants while their clients focus on client-facing activities. They handle tasks like email correspondence and calendar scheduling while working through the night and during standard U.S. hours for pay that can be far higher than the average wage in the Philippines.

Monta logs on overnight from her parent’s house and spends her working day attending to the dazzling variety of demands of her clients. According to her, her duties can be “literally everything,” and at one point, she even assisted the family’s nanny in keeping track of the child’s daily schedule, including their eating, sleeping, and even bowel motions.

Monta earns roughly three times as much as she did while employed by the government and four times more than the $300 monthly average pay in the Philippines. She proudly remarked, “When I started working as a virtual assistant, things got a lot easier for me. It truly is a career that improves your quality of life.

As solo and small businesses bloomed during the pandemic, so did the use of virtual assistants. Usually, they’re cheaper, hired quickly through outsourcing companies or freelancer platforms, and more flexible with hours and assignments than traditional staff.

According to Colombia-based virtual assistant agency, There Is Talent, the market for virtual assistants doubled in size between 2021 and 2022. The company estimates there are now roughly 40 million across the globe. Experts and workers told Rest of World that a significant number of them are based in the Philippines, where a ready workforce of skilled, English-speaking customer service professionals already exists.

Hiring remote virtual assistants is a good deal for employers, who typically pay a fraction of a standard salary, and don’t have to pay healthcare or pensions. An executive assistant hired in the U.S. costs nearly $56,000 per year, or roughly $4,700 per month, according to recruiting platform Glassdoor. Monta costs her employer about a quarter of that amount.

The rise of the virtual assistant industry has been a blessing and curse for the Philippines, according to Leonardo A. Lanzona Jr., a labor economist at Ateneo de Manila University.

“Workers hampered by the current economic conditions now have more opportunities,” he told Rest of World. “But the problem is that these jobs do not have the same security and benefits that come from regular employment.” While being a virtual assistant may be a viable job for most Filipinos, Lanzona said, the temporary nature of those arrangements still leaves them in a precarious position, facing an insecure future.

Upwards of 1.3 million Filipinos do some sort of online freelance work, according to figures cited in a 2022 report by payment platforms Payoneer and GCash. Even before the pandemic, Payoneer data showed that the Philippines was the sixth fastest-growing market for digital work globally in 2019.

Pinning down the exact number of Filipinos working as virtual assistants is difficult, Rest of World’s reporting found, because of the inherently unregulated nature of freelance and gig work in the country. Still, anecdotal evidence is prevalent: It seems almost everyone in the Philippines nowadays knows someone who is a virtual assistant.

“There’s a lot of competition,” Raine Soriano, a 35-year-old virtual assistant in the Nueva Ecija province, told Rest of World. He found his first virtual assistant role in 2016 through an ad on social media and now works for a real estate company based in Canada, making about $2,000 per month.

Dozens of Facebook groups have sprung up to cater to would-be virtual assistants; Soriano said he sees “around 20 times more” people on social media looking for virtual jobs than before the pandemic. Groups with keyword-heavy names like “Virtual Assistant Jobs Philippines,” “Filipino Virtual Assistant Hiring,” and “Philippine Home-Based Virtual Assistants” host members stretching into the hundreds of thousands.

The groups present a near-constant stream of job seekers posting their credentials, as well as employers posting their openings and resume requirements — mainly for executive assistants and data entry specialists, but also for account managers and content creators.

Upwork is another popular job-seeking platform. Most of the company’s clients looking to hire virtual assistants are based in the U.S., according to Upwork data. Employment in the category jumped 34% between 2021 and 2022, and in 2023 so far, “general virtual assistance” has been the second-most in-demand skill within their customer service listings, the company told Rest of World.

Pay rates are typically decided by the workers and the clients, Margaret Lilani, a Talent Solutions executive at Upwork, told Rest of World. They can be hourly, or at a fixed rate for the whole job. “It’s really up to the talent to determine the rate, and then it’s up to the client as to whether they would accept the role at that,” Lilani said.

Not all virtual assistants in the Philippines have had a positive experience. Horror stories circulate in the community about clients who hire an assistant, only to ghost them when payment is due. It’s a risk, due to the marketplace-style matching method of platforms like Upwork. The company tries to mitigate that with a dispute resolution team, and an escrow-like function where the client pays upfront, and the money is held by Upwork until the job is completed, Lilani said.

Jerty Mateo, 42, has been a virtual assistant for 10 years. She told Rest of World she has only ever had to chase down payment once: Mateo and a client had agreed on a $7-per-hour rate, but sometimes, the payments would fall short. Then the last payment never came, Mateo said, and she had to tenaciously chase the fee for three weeks.

The main issue, for her, is job security. “As a VA, you’ll never know this might be your last day. And the next thing you know, when you’re talking to your boss, they can say, ‘Oh, we don’t need your service anymore and we’ll just call you when we need you again,’” Mateo said.

Mylène Caballona, ​​president of the BPO Industry Employee Network, an interest group that represents workers in business process outsourcing, told the rest of the world Some of its members work as virtual assistants. Cabalona said she sees some of the same abuses in her industry — job insecurity, low pay, and wage theft — being reported in the virtual assistant community. He hopes to one day expand his group’s organizing efforts. “But right now, we don’t [know] How big is the industry?

Lanzona, the labor economist, echoed Cabalona. If freelance virtual work is to be a viable part of the Philippine economy, he said, the government needs to create basic laws and policies to provide virtual workers with protection.

“Companies have the option to choose any employee abroad,” Lanzona said. “It’s become a race to the bottom, especially for people who don’t have any special skills.”

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