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Freelance slackers, beware: Big Brother is watching Add to ...

When full-time employees walk the plank into the unknown waters of freelancing, the perks of office life get thrown overboard, too: a steady cheque, an annual paid vacation, a chance to discuss So You Think You Can Dance around the photocopier.

On the bright side, self-employed writers, graphic designers, programmers and other digital-age do-it-yourselfers can at least telecommute in their favourite pyjamas and indulge in PerezHilton.com gossip breaks without the boss barging into their office unannounced.

Until now.

Among dozens of freelance-for-hire websites, oDesk.com has carved out a fast-expanding and controversial niche by allowing employers not only to contract long-distance temporary workers but also to remotely monitor them on the job.

Uploaded onto their freelancers' computers, oDesk's proprietary work-management software records random screenshots, keystrokes, mouse moves, even webcam images - and then sends these electronic tattletales back to contractors.

Of course, 9-to-5ers also suffer through digital hall-monitoring such as security swipe cards, blocked Web domains, and bosses who BlackBerry or Twitter them nearly to death. But critics of online outsourcing say that oDesk crosses a line by taking the industry's already Dickensian pay rates (which can dive below North American minimum wages) and adding Orwellian surveillance to freelancers' home offices. (One U.S. blogger called it "eSlavery 2.0.") Yet some users say the service has transformed the way they work - and live - for the better.

Founded 41/2 years ago in Menlo Park, Calif., oDesk is a relative newcomer among the many eBay-style auctions that enable freelancers to bid on projects. Popular sites include Guru.com, Elance.com, RentACoder.com and the Toronto-based programmers' clearinghouse ScriptLance.com.

Nick Lay, a 27-year-old graphic designer in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., road-tested several freelance sites before settling upon oDesk. He liked the hourly rates, invoice-less payouts and lack of upfront fees. In a year of using oDesk, he has applied for 700 jobs and doubled his take-home pay from $35,000 to upward of $70,000. He now gets about 50 per cent of his assignments using the site, many from repeat clients. Does he mind being watched while he works?

"Not at all. The people that are complaining are likely the ones that are wasting their time," Mr. Lay said. "Sure, compared to Elance or Guru.com, there is some sort of Big Brother feel." He paused and reconsidered his words. "Or a higher level of scrutiny." He works on multiple monitors, not all linked to the omniscient eye of oDesk. "There are ways around it."

Raphael Cohen, co-owner of ThunderNet Inc., a Montreal-based Internet firm that connects shippers, truckers and clients, has used oDesk.com to find a variety of short-term workers: a blog writer from Israel, a Facebook developer from Singapore, Filipino telemarketers and a Russian-born Canadian artist to design a CD cover. "She does great work for not much money," said Mr. Cohen, who moonlights as an electronic musician.

"I don't use it much," Mr. Cohen said of oDesk's peekaboo software. "For me, it's the results."

Veteran freelancers find the online micromonitoring - especially being "screen-captured" six times an hour - an insult to their integrity. "This [harks]back to the old-fashioned idea that you have to keep close tabs on your people or they will steal you blind," said Gordon Graham, a former president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada whose own freelancing focuses on the software industry. "Lots of full-time, on-site employees spend 20 per cent of the workweek on Facebook or playing computer games. Are they being monitored this way?"

Gary Swart, chief executive officer of oDesk, admitted that his service isn't suited to every personality and that the website works best for long-term, open-ended, hourly waged assignments. He also said that freelancers can control the level of online scrutiny. The live webcam is optional. Payment for offline hours can be negotiated. Screen shots are also revealed to computer users, so freelancers know when they have been busted and can pre-emptively delete billable hours they actually spent on YouTube.

According to Mr. Swart, that "real-time visibility" builds trust, prevents disputes and creates a collaborative work environment. "It's like I'm sitting in the cube next to you," he said. "I don't mind if you want to look over my shoulder. That might save us time and energy."

It helped save at least one Canadian from financial ruin. After stints as a call-centre employee and a curling-rink bartender, Christine Culley found herself back in Coldwater, Ont., a single mom-to-be with few job prospects. "I live in the sticks and I don't drive," she said. "Even with a job at Tim Hortons, daycare would take up almost my whole paycheque."

After months of searching, she stumbled upon oDesk and slowly began to land assignments for data entry, music blogging (she's a self-described "band geek") and as an administrative assistant. Now the 21-year-old mother of two freelances full-time, often on her laptop till 3 a.m., while her boyfriend helps with the kids.

Her eclectic résumé includes researching the history of bras for a Toronto lingerie company and fluffing the prose of an online sex-toy retailer in Ireland. "I was desperate for money," Ms. Culley said with a laugh. She hasn't had a vacation or a weekend off since last November.

The biggest complaint about auction-style outsourcing sites is how low-balling newbies can drive down pay rates. (On oDesk, average hourly wages range from nearly $30 for a VoIP software designer to $3.10 for data entry.) Ms. Culley doesn't disagree.

To win her first bid, she agreed to blog for 50 cents for each 1,000-word post. (Cue the sound of freelance writers choking on their Kraft Dinner.) More recently, she dropped her preferred pay rate, which had climbed to $15 an hour, by $2 to stay competitive. Still, her enthusiasm remains unfazed.

"Honestly, I've learned so much since starting on oDesk," said Ms. Culley, who has recruited family members to join the site. "I would have been lost without it. I couldn't imagine going back to the work force."

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