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Most 'Anywhere Workers' Are Bad for Locals. Here's How to Not Be.

by Christina Jane Apr 17, 2023

Low costs of living, a fresh start, and an opportunity to explore somewhere new and exciting – sounds like a dream, right?

Currently, an estimated 9 million Americans live abroad, many of whom hope to live the proverbial dream and create a better life abroad. Backed by legitimate motivations like affordable healthcare and a slower pace of life, American expatriates (more commonly known as “expats”) have been on the rise.

However, while the online conversation around working from anywhere usually focuses on financial flexibility and lifestyle freedom, what often gets left out are the harsh impacts that  expats can have on the people who live in the places they flock to. Locals in many of the most popular countries for anywhere workers have expressed that expats have priced them out of their houses, and sometimes out of restaurants and neighborhoods, too.

With the privilege most Americans have of being able to temporarily relocate to most countries with minimal restrictions, it’s essential for expats and anywhere workers to know how they impact their new communities. It’s the only way to ensure that those communities remain inhabitable – and affordable – for the people who lived there first.

I’m an expat who’s seen the impact firsthand

anywhere workers - street scene in accra ghana

Photo: Delali Adogla-Bessa/Shutterstock

As an American expat who relocated to Accra, Ghana, to pursue a Master’s degree, I’ve seen the negative impacts my fellow travelers can have on local Ghanaian communities.

Ghana has been in an ongoing financial crisis the last few years, with inflation rates rising to a record-high 50.3 percent. That left many Ghanaians unable to rent apartments, use recreational facilities, or otherwise participate in the economy, as the minimum wage in many cities isn’t keeping up with the extreme inflation.

For some Ghanaians, the increase of expats only makes it worse. “I don’t think it generally helps the economy positively. Money made here doesn’t stay here. It goes back home,” says Kofi Dotse, a creative strategist and writer born and raised in Ghana. He thinks the country’s rising number of expats (the number of non-Ghanians living in Ghana in 2022 is twice what it was in 2012) contributes to the country’s challenging economic situation. “It’s more of an exploitation than a business. If expats are catering to other expats, then there’s no need to have a business in an African country.”

He points to specific events that attract temporary workers and drive prices up so high that residents can’t afford them — and the fact that some businesses offer prices in U.S. dollars and Euros shows that the organizers and hotels aren’t interested in attracting locals.

“Let’s take the December in Ghana festivities as an example,” he says. “December has become the most expensive month of the year. Event organizers, transport companies, and housing agents and owners charge outrageous and ridiculous fees that are not realistic to the average Ghanaian consumer.”

Essentially, the money expats are pouring into the community is so significant that there’s no reason for businesses to bother pricing themselves for local customers anymore.

Gentrification caused by expats displaces locals

anywhere workers and gentrification -- rent sign

Photo: HipKat/Shutterstock

In recent stories about expats and digital nomads, Indigenous populations in destinations like Mexico, Costa Rica, Portugal, and Ghana have expressed feeling like harder to thrive in their countries due to expats, as foreigners often have an undeniable advantage: a stronger currency that affords a greater degree of buying power. That kind of income imbalance can and will gradually transform those neighborhoods, towns, or regions, bringing in higher-end businesses and higher costs for goods and services targeted to the expats with money, not the locals who lived there first. That’s gentrification, in a nutshell.

The US dollar is one of the strongest and most widely used currencies in the world, and what an anywhere worker makes in two hours may buy more than what a local worker makes in a day. That puts those expats in a higher wealth class compared to local workers, giving them an obvious advantage in the housing markets.

And that advantage is being felt in places like Portugal.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that more than half of Portuguese workers earned less than 1,000 Euros (around $1,060) per month in 2022, according to data from Portugal’s Ministry of Labor – hardly enough to afford basic necessities. Unfortunately, locals have reported being evicted as their landlords raise the rent to target foreign workers who will pay more, contributing to a budding housing crisis in the country.

As more American expats look overseas for their next long-term rentals or real estate investments, locals get priced out and have to relocate. It usually begins slowly.

First, landlords recognize that they could rent their properties for more than they currently are, so they raise the rent. Gradually, non-locals and transplants who can afford those rates move in, and the communities start to change, with older businesses and community resources gradually giving way to cafes, boutiques, and other high-priced establishments catering to expats and tourists.

Expats often expect foreign cities to be more like America

crowds in mexico city, mexico

Photo: Alex Cimbal/Shutterstock

English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with more than 1.5 million speakers. However, there are nearly 8 billion people on Earth, meaning the vast majority of people worldwide don’t speak English. However, many expats and anywhere workers still carry expectations of how things should be in their new homes, from cultural expectations around dining and customer service to, yes, an expectation that everyone should know some English.

You can see that in various countries, but it’s especially evident in places like Mexico, where American workers can stay for up to six months at a time without a visa. Mexico’s proximity to the US makes it an attractive expat destination, with an estimated 1.6 million US citizens living in Mexico. The lack of language barriers is a primary factor in the decision for many to move to Mexico, with many blogs and remote working websites stating that it’s easy to “get by” without knowing much Spanish.

This notion, however, breeds an expectation of locals to know English, all for the ease of comfort –and money — of the American expats settling into their community.

“I have observed that in heavily touristic areas, there is pressure on the local community to speak English. This is primarily due to the majority of foreigners from the US and Canada not speaking or learning Spanish. As a result, the local economy incentivizes workers to learn English in order to access better-paying job opportunities. Many jobs in these areas now require applicants to be bilingual just to get an interview,” says May Larios, a Spanish language teacher and guide who lives in Mexico.

In Mexico and many other expat-heavy countries around the world, locals are forced to change their living and cultural standards to accommodate foreign workers instead of the other way around. While some businesses may offer English-language classes to employees, many don’t, and pressuring locals to learn English for jobs isn’t just an issue for individuals: it’s a slippery slope that could lead to bigger problems, including the eventual loss of local languages.

American-owned businesses often don’t benefit locals

anywhere workers - starbucks sign in hanoi vietnam

Photo: Vietnam Stock Images/Shutterstock

For most Americans, getting a local job in a country and getting paid significantly less than what they’re used to isn’t ideal. That leads to most expats opting for remote work (a group often  called “digital nomads”) or choosing to open their own businesses, often using capital and resources from the US.

While this may sound unproblematic, it could be considered a form of economic neocolonialism: taking control of a country’s economy, then exploiting it. As more expats move abroad and open businesses, it forms an uneven dependency between themselves and the local community. Those businesses may sometimes create jobs, but may pay low wages or take local resources away from the people who live there. Income from those businesses is often not reinvested into the local economy, but instead spent on buying resources and products from companies in the owner’s home country.

How to not be part of the anywhere worker problem

anywhere workers having a positive impact - centro neighborhood in puerto vallarta

Choose housing at a local rate and try to shop at locally owned stores whenever possible. Photo: Bentfotos/Shutterstock

Anywhere workers, digital nomads, and expats are an unavoidable part of the modern global economy, but the impact they have doesn’t have to be a negative one. If you’re thinking of moving away from the US, either permanently or just for a few months, here are a few things you can do to make your stay help local communities as much as possible.

Choose living accommodations that align with local rates

As a foreign worker likely getting paid in a stronger currency than most people in your new country, you’ll probably be able to afford housing that most locals can’t. What seems cheap to you probably isn’t for people who work there.

But rather than converting it into dollars to see what you can afford, learn what the market rate is for housing and pay something within that range. Refusing to pay inflated rates will discourage rent increases by landlords in the future, making it easier for locals to find affordable housing.

Use your economic privilege for good

If you’re thinking of starting a local business, be it a surf school, bike repair shop, or consulting business, be mindful of local norms and how you can use your privilege to improve them. Just because you can pay your employees what seems like a low wage doesn’t mean you should, especially if low wages are an ongoing socio-economic issue for the country.

Learn about the market you’re in and spend time figuring out how you can create long-term benefits for locals. That may mean investing in or starting your businesses in a less sought-after neighborhood or town to bring more people and jobs to that region.

You should aim to make a difference where you can, big or small, because you most likely have the privilege to do so, which brings with it responsibility. Your business should positively contribute to the growth and development of the country, not worsen its pain points.

Buy local

food cart on street in thailand

Photo: PixHound/Shutterstock

Whenever you can, support local businesses over larger corporations or chains. Buy bread from a local bakery, use a local shop if you need a gift for someone back home, and take language classes in person when you arrive. Local businesses are already at an advertising and income disadvantage compared to big corporations, so spending your money with a local business helps right that imbalance and get your money circulating locally, rather than going to a faceless company.

Make an effort to learn the local language

Instead of expecting locals to conform to English or limiting your interactions to people who speak English, take the initiative to learn the local language. Learning a new language comes with its challenges, but it’s a great way to be a responsible expat and enrich your personal experience while living abroad. It’s especially easy if you’re moving to a country with a widely spoken language available on free learning apps, like Spanish, French, or Portuguese.

While it’s not just American anywhere workers and digital nomads to blame for the negative changes expats can bring, Americans do hold a great deal of privilege when traveling abroad. And with that comes a responsibility to participate in the discussions and be aware of your impacts. So if you’re thinking about becoming a digital nomad, becoming informed on making respectful decisions should be a key part of your plan before you ever think about establishing a new home base abroad.

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