x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The high cost of freelancing

A flexible labour pool is especially important during a downturn. But in the UAE, laws and infrastructure for freelance workers and writers remain underdeveloped.

When Adnan Dawood was laid off from his plush public relations job earlier this year, he found himself in the unfamiliar waters of a freelance operative navigating one of Dubai's worst job markets. "After I left, I did the job search thing but there was nothing out there," he says. At Nakheel, he had been the brand manager for The World project, a collection of islands off the coast of Dubai arranged in the shape of the continents. Even with this high-profile experience he had no luck finding a vacancy. Not only were the public relations firms not hiring, but companies were reducing their internal PR teams as well. He decided to freelance, but was taken aback by the challenges that were laid before him. "In California, it took me two days to get a licence and it cost me about US$40 (Dh147) or $50," he says. "Here you have to submit business plans, pay thousands of dollars and it takes two months." He ended up making an arrangement with a colleague at the Jebel Ali Free Zone, who provided him with a visa and a licence to operate in Dubai. Now, months later, he has found a way to make a living as a project-by-project PR consultant and a publicist. Soon, he is planning to upgrade from freelance PR and publicity to running his own firm. "Looking at the colleagues who tried to do this, most of them just moved back to their home country," he says. "I won't say it's a success until it's been two years, but it's paying the bills." But his story is one success among many failures, analysts say. The UAE's laws and infrastructure for freelance workers and writers is under developed and prevents most people from being able to make it here on their own. "There is a freelance pool, but it is not as large or as talented as elsewhere because there is not the incentive to be a freelance writer," says Austyn Allison, the managing editor of Communicate magazine. "This place is really not terribly conducive to freelancing." The issue of a freelance labour pool, whether for writing or banking or any other profession, is especially important during a financial downturn, according to economists. Flexible labour pools allow companies to adjust and contract with greater ease when times get tough. Several countries, including Korea and Denmark, have made efforts in the past year to improve the lives of short-term workers or freelancers. One of the greatest detriments to a larger freelance base in the UAE is the difficulty of getting a visa. Many freelancers actually work on tourist visas, making occasional trips to Oman to get them renewed, even though this technically is breaking the law. Getting a freelance licence and visa from the Dubai Media City free zone costs Dh24,500 a year, not to mention the other costs of running your own business. Richard Whitehead, who started a freelance career two years ago, says the costs of becoming a freelancer are so prohibitive that he recommends someone save up at least three months of their salary before trying to make the move. "It took us six months to get a Media City licence," Mr Whitehead says. "You really need to have a cushion of capital to sit on." Instead of going at it alone, Mr Whitehead formed a partnership with a friend, Noel Ebdon, to create a "content provider company" called WhiteFox Media. This helped them look more serious to clients and they are planning to bring on board their first additional staff members. Still, another challenge for freelancers is getting paid on time. WhiteFox Media still has some invoices that have been due for more than a year, he says. "In a big way, that can just cripple freelancers," says Mr Allison. "Payments just fall through the cracks." And when the money comes in, it is not at international freelance rates, which hurts considering the cost of living in the UAE. Mr Allison says the going payment structure is Dh1 per word. As a result, most freelance writers end up doing public relations work, which pays better. "If you can find a way to make it so you are doing more than producing words, you can bill a lot more," Mr Allison says. "You need to become an editorial consultant, where you are renting out your expertise and not just your skills." bhope@thenational.ae