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Pakistan’s 4-day internet shutdown was the final straw for its tech workers

Foreign contractors and clients are reconsidering hiring remote tech workers from Pakistan.

Pakistanis are now leaving the country in droves in search of better prospects abroad. At least 800,000 migrated for employment in 2022.

On May 16, frustrated with an unexpected internet shutdown in Pakistan, Karachi-based app developer Wajahat Karim posted a poll on LinkedIn. The 32-year-old asked his connections if they wanted to move abroad “considering the uncertainty in the country these days.” To Karim’s surprise, 70% of the 399 people who voted — mostly tech workers and mid-tier professionals — responded with a yes.

“I didn’t expect such an overwhelming majority to say they wanted to leave Pakistan,” Karim told Rest of World. He said the political and economic circumstances in the country had made it very difficult to work without constant roadblocks, prompting many professionals to want to leave. “There are no proper payment gateways, mass unpredictability and uncertainty, an absence of reliability and trust between [remote] workers and the government,” said Karim. 

“There’s a kind of desperation among young people here now, they just want to get out as quickly as possible.”

Part of the frustration expressed in reaction to Karim’s post came from a recent four-day internet shutdown across Pakistan, which started on May 9 amid widespread protests against the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on charges of corruption. The development took place as Pakistan reeled from record-high unemployment, inflation reaching 38%, and depleting foreign exchange reserves. Due to the internet blackout, Karim was unable to access Meta’s Open Source library for a project. “Our startup ecosystem has suffered. Investors are hesitant to invest. They don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he said.

Although the internet shutdown was temporary, it brought the country’s IT industry to a grinding halt. Tech workers from Pakistan told Rest of World they were concerned about its lasting effects on jobs, and the tech industry as a whole. After a year of record-breaking funding in 2021, the internet blackout has taken the country’s tech ecosystem “10 steps back,” said experts, fueling fears that international investors might reconsider investing in Pakistan.

“Shutdowns have serious consequences for our standing as a tech destination,” Shehryar Hydri, managing partner at early-stage venture capital firm Deosai Ventures and the former secretary-general of Pakistan’s IT industry association, told Rest of World. “Customers can forgive other things but they do not accept unpredictable behavior and [internet] blackouts like the one we saw. If you keep throwing such surprises to local and international stakeholders, everyone will move on to other markets and not look at Pakistan before 2025.”

Freelance tech workers said the internet shutdown has caused them to lose clientele they had built over years; one even said she was contemplating migrating to another country.

Four days of no internet cost freelance front-end web developer Sania Ijaz five of her 10 clients and a significant chunk of her monthly income, she told Rest of World. The 23-year-old, who works out of a local community center in the small town of Layyah, earns a living from overseas clients, most of whom are based in the U.S.

“People in other countries, obviously, were not facing an internet shutdown. [Clients] expected their orders to be fulfilled, and when they weren’t being fulfilled from Pakistan, they turned towards workers in other countries,” she said. 

Ijaz said her monthly income of approximately $2,800 was slashed by half. She fears it will take her months to regain the momentum she lost due to the internet shutdown. Ijaz also has eight family members who depend on her income — they are currently subsisting on her savings from the past three years. 

Pakistan has the third-largest base of freelance workers in the world, with tech workers making up a large chunk of it.

The internet shutdown has exacerbated foreign clients’ wariness about hiring tech workers from Pakistan, eroding years of efforts and creating a “trust deficit,” Asfia Aiman, a software engineer from Islamabad, told Rest of World. The 28-year-old said she lost nearly $4,000 worth of work because she couldn’t get in touch with her clients on time due to the internet outage. “Even if we somehow managed to get in touch with our clients, we couldn’t give [them] a clear timeline with regards to restoration of the internet, because the PTA [Pakistan Telecommunication Authority] said that the ban was indefinite,” said Aiman. 

“Such events can raise concerns among foreign investors and clients, potentially affecting their willingness to invest resources and place trust [in Pakistan]”

When Aiman meets other young techies, she said they often talk about settling abroad. She, too, has been looking for a way out. “There’s a kind of desperation among young people here now, they just want to get out as quickly as possible,” she said. Roughly 800,000 Pakistanis moved out of the country in search of jobs in 2022, according to the country’s Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment — the highest number of emigrants since 2016. 

Hira Saeed is the CEO and founder of Koi.work, a Pakistani company that helps global businesses hire local tech talent. She told Rest of World the May internet shutdown has made it harder for her to convince foreign clients to hire remote tech workers from Pakistan, as they now prefer countries with a more stable sociopolitical environment.

“This setback not only affected our own team’s productivity but also strained our relationships with clients who were relying on our talent to deliver timely and quality services,” Saeed said“Such events can raise concerns among foreign investors and clients, potentially affecting their willingness to invest resources and place trust in a country where internet shutdowns loom large.”

Many outsourcing companies attempted to come up with workarounds to access the internet, such as swapping broadband for Wi-Fi and using VPNs. But due to throttled bandwidths and blocked social media platforms, few to no internet-based tasks could be done. Ali Raza Rizvi, who runs a Karachi-based intermediary agency that helps foreign and local companies outsource platform-based marketing services, told Rest of World their work was “severely impacted” due to Instagram and Facebook being inaccessible.

“For four days, our developers only did basic coding, they didn’t do any releases,” said Rizvi. According to the Pakistan IT Industry Association, the national body which represents the IT sector, between $3 million to $4 million was lost per day during the internet shutdown.

Aiman, the software engineer from Islamabad, said she will have to spend sleepless nights on call with clients in opposite time zones to make up for her losses. But she told Rest of World the extra work is the least of her concerns. “The country is in turmoil. I remember that the dishwashing liquid I bought in 2020 cost 200 rupees [around $1]. And it costs over 400 rupees now,” she said. “That’s double. People like us, we have savings and can eat. But for how long?” 

Source: Rest of World