Giddy for the Gig Economy

No man is an island, so the saying goes – unless you are a freelance worker in today’s fluid economy. A freelancer is an independent worker who fulfills contracts with myriad companies. These contract workers generally are not tied to any one company and, hence, do not enjoy the benefits (and trappings) of an employee. Freelancers enjoy the freedom to pick and choose when they work but they may also not know where their next paycheck may come from.

Traditionally, creative jobs are fulfilled by freelancers. Projects such as event photography, wedding photography, designers, writers, even plumbers would go to one-off contract workers. According to the Straits Times, more are turning to freelance work with the arrival of private car services such as Uber Grab, RydeX and delivery services such as Deliveroo and CarPal. The 2016 news report also cited a McKinsey Global Institute study that found about 20 to 30 per cent of the working population have done some kind of independent work.

A quick survey of the Facebook group, Freelance Job Vacancies in Singapore – which has 23,000 members – offers jobs such as “Freelance Course Consultants”, “Auxiliary Police Outrider”, “Housekeeping” positions at hotels alongside sketchy schemes that promise easy money working from home.

Another Facebook group, Singapore Freelancers, which has 7,000 members, show a more convincing list of gigs ranging from “Part-time F&B” (food and beverage) staff, “Retail Associates”, “Night Shift Packer” along with sales of tickets for events and even products such as iPhone 7 Plus. There are several Facebook groups that offer jobs that may suit the freelancer’s lifestyle, skills or interests, such as photography, design, and modelling.

(Photo: digitalmarketing)

More graduates are also opting to pursue a freelance career, reported the Straits Times. It referred to the Graduate Employment Survey released in 2017, which showed 33.1 per cent of graduates from Nanyang Technological University (Art, design and media) took on more freelance or part-time jobs in 2016 – an increase of 10.7 per cent year-on-year. Singapore Management University (Social sciences) and National University of Singapore (Industrial design) reported increases of 5.1 per cent and 13 per cent year-on-year respectively.

Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say have said the overall numbers of freelance workers have remained stable, but there may be more workers joining the transport services with private car hires.

Recruitment agency, ScienTec Consulting’s Head of Business Cecilia Sim said: “People looking to work in the gig economy should adopt a knowledge-hungry attitude” as an incentive to hiring companies. A better skilled worker, backed by an arsenal of certifications, will be more valuable to companies.

According to numbers filed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), there are almost 170,000 “own account workers”, who are self-employed and do not hire other workers. This number does not account for the 40,000 active drivers of taxi companies and may not include private car drivers who only drive for either Uber Grab or Ryde. The Straits Times put the combined force of Uber and Grab’s fleet at around 25,000 private cars. Website also said their membership had grown by 39 per cent in the 2016.

(Photo: ryanwaggoner)

The new pioneers

However, Ms Sim noted it is still early days for the freelance economy. “The gig economy in Singapore is still in its infancy. While we have noted an upward trend for companies hiring freelancers, such as tech professionals for start-ups, it is still new and more needs to be done to protect freelance workers, said Ms Sim.

There are currently no provisions for freelancers such as those covered under the Employment Act like CPF, health insurance, maternity and childcare leave, etc. That may soon change, according to Mr Lim. The Manpower Minister made these observations in his speech in parliament: There are about 200, 000 freelancers in Singapore comprising 167,000 primary freelancers (who freelance as a main occupation) and about 33,000 secondary freelancers who supplement their income with additional gigs. The bulk of freelancers do so out of choice (81 per cent); 19 per cent said it was not their preferred choice – 16 per cent are primary freelancers and 2 per cent are secondary freelancers.

Mr Lim said the ones who do not freelance out of choice are the ones the Manpower Ministry is concerned about. Mr Lim said his ministry hopes to reach out to this demographic and help them move into full-time employment through the Adapt and Grow initiative.

Other grouses the ministry noted were fears over income security if workers have an injury or takes time off to upgrade their skills. Freelancers are also worried about “timely and complete payment from their clients” as well as savings for housing and retirement. Mr Lim said these issues, while not new, will need to be looked at seriously as “the number of freelancers may grow in our future economy, in tandem with the growth of the platform economy”.

It may come as no surprise that this article is written by a freelancer. Unless the company is a multi-national brand that utilises content as its main marketing strategy, it does not make much sense to hire a full-time content writer. Only a handful of International brands such as General Electric (GE), Reebok, etc could justify the costs to run a full-scale brand newsroom.

I have been freelancing on-and-off for the last 20 years or so – first as a designer then as an editorial writer/editor. The concerns that Mr Lim has detailed ring true to me. While I have not been stiffed on payments, I have heard tales from other freelancers who had not been able to get payment after the job is delivered.

Also, another recurring problem is the notion that work done by freelancers are of low value. The Straits Times said the freelance trade had “been looked down upon as the province of the stay-at-home mum and retiree”. As such companies – even big brands such as Huffington Post – have offered to pay freelancers with “exposure”. The phenomenon is so massive it has sparked editorials, twitter accounts, parody videos, even comics.

Mr Lim said a tripartite workgroup will look into the concerns of freelancers, address the issues and design workable solutions to take care of the community. In response to Minister of Parliament Patrick Tay’s call to review the Trade Union’s Act to allow freelancers to join the NTUC Union, Mr Lim said the Act is “not applicable” as it regulates industrial relations between employers and employees. However, freelancers are free to join NTUC as members for the trade union to champion their causes.


Putting on a united front

As an ex-journalist with the Singapore Press Holdings, I have been exposed to unionised work conditions. During my stint at SPH, I was covered under the Singapore National Union of Journalists and have sat in on at least one of its meetings to improve the working conditions of its members.

Today, the Singapore Press Holdings Employees’ Union (SPHEU) and the Singapore National Union of Journalists (SNUJ) have merged to become the Creative Media and Publishing Union. It “represents employees in the creative media, publishing and journalism sectors”. The CMPU is a member of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and members benefit from its Plus programmes such as membership points at Fairprice.

Contrary to mass belief, the NTUC is not a union. It is a “national confederation of trade unions as well as a network of professional associations and partners across all sectors in Singapore”. Workplace policies to protect employees are drafted at – and enforced by – the Ministry Of Manpower but the NTUC works with its affiliated trade unions to improve working conditions and watch out for the welfare of workers consistently, according to the fivestarsandamoon website.

The NTUC has “58 affiliated unions, two affiliated associations, 10 social enterprises, and six related organisations”. It also has a “growing ecosystem of U Associates (a partnership programme designed to engage and support professional associations and PMEs) and enterprise partners”.

As a member of the CMPU, I would have to pay an annual fee of S$117 per year (S$9 per month with a double deduction in Dec) and members enjoy limited representation; including mediation to recover owed fees – according to the customer service representative who took my call.

Trade unions include the Air Line Pilots Association – Singapore, Attractions, Resorts & Entertainment Union, the Singapore Teachers Union, Singapore Merchant and Mercantile Workers Union, etc. For a list of trade unions, click here. You may already have a union representing your trade. Check with them about joining the union and the benefits of being a member.

(Photo: dogtownmedia)

Go corporate

Freelancers may be individual contributors yet there are benefits to teaming up. You could build on each other’s contacts for suppliers and clients, you may join forces to pitch for bigger jobs, you may even ask buddies to fill in for you when you (or loved ones) are ill – or if you are planning to go on a vacation.

Buddies may even provide support and a listening ear. You can brainstorm for ideas or bounce theories off each other. Just because you are working on your own does not mean you have to work in isolation. Just work with people you trust who will not steal your jobs.

Some of you may work so well together that you decide to register a company together. Whether you choose to go into business with a buddy or own a sole-proprietorship, there are some benefits of going corporate.

In my experience, small start-ups with less than five personnel will not find it economical to sign up for a corporate insurance with AIA or Aon Hewitt Singapore, two of the best employee insurance vendors in Asia. Signing up for a basic plan that covers visits to private and government clinics, workplace insurance and dental can cost thousands per person per annum. An agent I spoke with from Aon Hewitt did not even want to quote for a maternity package as it’s often too expensive for SMEs to take up, he said.

Other benefits of registering as a company include claiming grants under the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme to enable your business. The grant/s can be used to subsidise the acquisition of PIC IT and automation equipment, training, purchase of Intellectual Property, registration of patents, research and development and investment in design projects. Equipment under IT and automation include computers and laptops, displays, printers, mobile equipment as well as communications devices such as modems. You may opt to receive the subsidies via tax deductions or cash payouts.

There is no denying the rise of the contingent workforce. Director of government advisory at KPMG Miranda Lee said the contingent workforce may be beneficial to companies who are unable to hire locals with the right skills. This has led to a loss of opportunities for the companies. Having a pool of freelance expertise allow companies “to be more nimble and responsive to work exigencies”, said Ms Lee. However more needs to be done to protect these contract workers, including legislating a set of guidelines set by the Tripartite Alliance. Ms Lee also suggested modifying the Wage Credit Scheme into a Supplementary Credit Scheme to allow provisions for voluntary CPF contributions for freelancers.

While more needs to be done, it is an exciting time to be a freelancer. With more safety nets and schemes planned to protect the individual worker, it may provide a win-win situation for manpower-strapped companies and workers who crave for that little bit of freedom.

In a parting shot, Ms Sim from ScienTec Consulting said: “The trailblazers today will carve a path for a robust economy driven by freelance professionals as well as the versatile contingent workforce”. Today’s freelance workers will be the new pioneers of a brand new workforce.

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