On April 4, Christine Carrillo, a Hawaii-based executive and entrepreneur, sent a glowing tweet thread about her virtual assistant in the Philippines. 

“The most undervalued asset of a CEO is an Executive Assistant,” wrote Carrillo. “My EA saves me 60% of time.” Carrillo says she runs a tech startup; coaches seven CEOs each month; writes, surfs, cooks, and reads every day; and participates in an “intense” writing course. How does she swing that? By outsourcing everything from research to company due diligence to her assistant, Carrillo said.

The flurry of responses was mixed. Some followers eagerly wanted to know how they could do the same. Others were critical. “Sounds like you have a Chief of Staff, not an EA,” replied one. “Maybe you should think of a title upgrade for your rockstar?!” (Carrillo did not respond to a request for comment from Rest of World.)

Not everyone is unhappy in the industry. Angela Monta, a virtual assistant in San Mateo in the Philippines, works all through the night, five days a week, for $1,200 a month, and she couldn’t be more pleased.

Just over a year ago, the 25-year-old worked for the Philippine government. She felt burdened by the lengthy commute to the office, and worried that she’d bring home Covid-19 to her family. So, Monta quit her job, and since February 2022, has worked virtually as an executive assistant to a venture capitalist based in California — a 15-hour time difference away.

Monta is part of a growing wave of Filipinos who work remotely as virtual assistants to startup entrepreneurs, often in the U.S. As their clients perform their client-facing hustle, assistants carry out the office grind, doing everything from email correspondence to calendar scheduling, working through the night on U.S. hours for salaries that can far outstrip the Philippine average wage. 

Logging on overnight from her parents’ home, Monta spends her workday catering to her client’s dizzying range of needs. Her tasks can include “literally everything,” she told Rest of World: Once, she even helped the family’s nanny monitor the child’s daily routines, minutely tracking their sleep behavior, feeding, and even bowel movements.

Monta makes almost three times what she did working for the government — and four times more than the average Philippines salary of around $300 per month. “When I started being a virtual assistant, life became a lot easier for me,” she said, with pride. “It’s really … a job that upgrades your lifestyle.”

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, the 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 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. 

Mylene Cabalona, president of the BPO Industry Employees Network, an interest group that represents workers in business process outsourcing, told Rest of World some of her members work as virtual assistants. Cabalona said she sees some of the same abuses in her industry — job insecurity, low wages, and wage theft — being reported in the virtual assistant community. She hopes to one day extend her group’s organizing efforts to them. “But right now, we don’t [know] the extent of how big the industry is.” 

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. 

“Firms have the option to choose any worker abroad,” Lanzona said. “This has become a race to the bottom, especially for those with no specialized skills.”