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How Sanctions on Russia Has Put This Freelancer’s Life on Hold

How Sanctions on Russia Has Put This Freelancer’s Life on Hold

Arina K., a linguist, translator, and teacher from Tatarstan - a republic of the Russian Federation - joined Storyhunter almost two years ago to take on translation gigs. She earned up to 30% of her income through our platform. But that changed in February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, and countries placed sanctions on Russian banks. Major payment providers pulled out to comply with sanctions.

We searched for ways to support our freelancers in Russia to ensure they got paid for their work completed on our platform. Many of you may be wondering whether it’s legal to pay freelance creators in Russia or any other countries sanctioned by the US and OFAC, and the answer is yes.

Here's why: Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) introduced the IEEPA amendments in 1988, expanding the list of protected rights under IEEPA to include the importation and exportation of informational materials in many formats, including electronic media. Under what became known as the Berman Amendment, transactions involving “information and informational materials” are generally exempt from sanctions “regardless of format or medium of transmission.” So, what does this mean? Storyhunter can legally pay freelancers globally for their work, as long as it’s for media and information services. We believe this is a crucial amendment because it protects journalists who are sharing critical information from sanctioned countries and deserve to get paid for their work.

The challenge is that even though it is legal for Storyhunter to pay freelancers, many of the payment processors we have integrated with, including banks, have stopped sending payments to Russia without exception. Allison Avella, our payment specialist, worked with Payoneer, one of the several payment processors Storyhunter offers, to find a reliable workaround in a difficult situation.

“Our teams worked tirelessly to implement this on a technical and operational level. We then successfully onboarded and remitted the payment to numerous freelancers who would have otherwise had no other way to access their funds,” Allison explains.

Thanks to the efforts, Payoneer initially introduced a specialty program offering support for payments to Russian freelancers impacted by sanctions, but the program is unfortunately no longer operational due to a policy change announced by Payoneer in December 2022. But, at Storyhunter, we’re still searching for alternatives for paying creatives and freelancers in Russia, many of whom have had to open foreign bank accounts or rely on friends to bypass the sanctions. We spoke with Arina, a freelancer who says she is “shocked” and “disappointed” by the suspension of payment services. This is her story.

Shivan: Arina, it’s nice to meet you. Thank you for agreeing to share your story. Can you tell me about yourself and your creative specialties?

Arina: It’s nice to meet you, thank you. My main job now is teaching. I am teaching English and Italian. I have been working as a translator for many years, but it's more project work. Almost two years ago, TRT World contacted me because one of their editors is my ex-student. So, he told me that they would love to ask for some translations. Different departments sent me articles or emails to translate from Russian into English or vice versa. From the beginning, there were no problems with the payout. It was a bit complicated for Russia. And it only worked with a VPN even back then. But it wasn't so difficult.

Shivan: When did you stop receiving payments for your work?

Arina: TRT pays for my services through Storyhunter, which offers several payment platforms to choose from. Payoneer used to be okay. And then some sanctions were introduced and some banks, Russian banks, were banned.

Payoneer introduced a special program. A Payoneer account is like an online account. It's like PayPal, without any card. So I just had an account and I had my normal debit card from my bank connected to this account. And I was withdrawing the money. At first, I could keep the money on Payoneer and then withdraw them whenever I wanted or needed to. But then after the invasion and all those events in February last year, they introduced this program where the money was automatically withdrawn. It was still okay because it worked.

Then in November, Payoneer sent me an email that they would stop all partnerships with Russian users, and they're closing all accounts.

Shivan: What was your reaction to this news?

Arina: I was rather shocked since by that time I had already been aware that there were no other options for me to get money online. Payoneer was the last website that I’m aware of which allowed Russian users to use such services.

Editor's Note: We reached out to Payoneer for comment on their decision to suspend services for freelancers protected by the Berman Amendment. They told us they began winding down services in February 2022, soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “

Payoneer added: "The wind down was done in several phases starting with preventing new customers from signing up and then reducing services to existing customers. Throughout this process we communicated clearly and transparently with our customers in Russia. By December 2022 we completed this wind down and all remaining activity in Russia ended."

Shivan: What did you do next?

Arina: I contacted TRT, of course, on this issue. So far they haven't been able to introduce any other options because all other online accounts are also prohibited for Russians. PayPal, or PaySend, or any, because in the last several months, I have tried registering many, many of them. And, of course, I was prohibited. So for now, I guess, no options.

“We are just ordinary people losing their sources of income, that's all.”

Shivan: How has this impacted your livelihood?

Arina: We are just ordinary people losing their sources of income, that's all. It seems like I'm forced to leave the country or go somewhere and open a debit card in some foreign country, but it's not so easily done especially nowadays. They ask to pay really big commissions for that from Russians, because it's in demand right now.

Shivan: It seems no matter where you turn, you’re running into an obstacle. Can you share what percentage of your income is on hold right now?

Arina: I would say maybe 20%-30%. You can feel it especially this year when the prices are rising.

I can still work since it's not my only source of income. I still work for a Russian online school. I said to TRT I could work for a couple of months without withdrawing money, but we should try to find a way, or maybe I could come to Turkey and they could help me open a debit card there. That's all I can do right now.

Shivan: You are in Dubai right now. Why did you go there and were you able to withdraw your funds from previous projects?

Arina: My friend has been living here for more than a year. I'm just visiting her. I'm living in her apartment. That's how I'm saving money on accommodation, at least [laughs].

I changed the payout method on Storyhunter. I saw that I could choose another country. I chose the United Arab Emirates. They suggested different options, and one of them was PayPal and my friend already has one. So, I chose this payout method. Storyhunter asked me the address in Dubai and zip code. And of course, my name and surname.

Since I'm here, she can withdraw it from PayPal to her debit card in Dubai, the local one.

“I feel a bit confused and I don't feel like finding other employers or other projects.”

Shivan: How has this development changed your plans for 2023?

Arina: From this year, I wanted to start looking for other projects. But, since it's still so uncertain with the payout methods, I feel a bit confused and I don't feel like finding other employers or other projects. TRT is quite stable already. So, I just want to stick to them. And then we'll see when it all stabilizes, the situation.

Shivan: What have you learned from this hardship?

Arina: You may think it is fair or unfair. But what is really important is how you see the situation. If you focus on the fact that it’s unfair and feel frustrated and disappointed all the time, nothing will change and your situation won’t improve.

I have been looking for information on how to open debit cards in other countries. It just all made me realize that if I need money and if I want to work, I have to be more flexible. Nowadays in the current situation, it's not easy for everyone. Not only me. It's not that I'm the only one who's suffering.

Shivan: What’s your advice to other freelancers who are going through the same thing?

You can't prepare because we didn't really see this coming last year in February. It was a shock for everyone. I would advise freelancers to be patient, as patient as you can be. And try to be open-minded, more flexible. Try not to give up, keep asking people because sometimes it feels like you are in a desperate situation and you are all alone and there is no one who can help you. But still, there are people who are willing to help you. I just couldn't imagine that it would turn into this. So, if you keep trying, maybe you will find some help or some surprising ways to solve the situation. Something that you couldn't even expect at first.

“You just have to start trying different things and then you will be surprised how many options there are nowadays.”

Shivan: You have described having multiple sources of income. How has it helped you keep afloat as a freelancer in an unexpected situation?

Arina: It's in my character because I really like having different tasks and projects. That's why I'm not just a teacher of English or teacher of Italian, or a translator. That's the reason I have all the sources of income because I'm always looking for something new. And it's an important thing to realize in a developing and changing world.

Even if you think you are just a teacher, you can still be many other things. If you think about it, you still have a lot of transferable skills, something that you can use in other professions projects. So I think maybe a lot of people nowadays are scared of freelance just because they think they can't do this and don't know how to start, but you just have to start trying different things and then you will be surprised how many options there are nowadays.

Shivan: What gives you hope during this time?

Arina: It's hard to say what I hope for nowadays. I'm just trying to focus on the present moment.

I was really scared when it all started, and I thought the whole world was against us. I was scared of how to live in this world, and felt guilty all the time. All this media and the whole situation, it makes you think that we are all enemies nowadays and people are going to be angry with us and so on. But when you really start dealing with people, it's not so bad. There are some people who are annoyed or angry, but in general, ordinary people are still people. It's really great. And it's something that gives me hope.