The new Pioneer Generation: Freelancers

The new Pioneer Generation: Freelancers

It is a stereotype of Singapore work life: the boss staying back late to ensure that his subordinates put in ultimately unproductive face-time.

But that idea of having to be chained to an office desk is changing. Singaporeans are forgoing full-time employment - and the perks attached - to be freelancers, choosing whom they work for and for how long.

The downsides are uncertain cash flow and a lack of medical benefits and legal protection. But for many, the freedom of being master of their own time makes up for the risks.

Says photographer Zakaria Zainal, 31, who has freelanced for five years: "This is not the lifestyle the average Singaporean would want. It's not restaurant dinners every weekend and big holidays.

"But I treasure the independence, especially when I hear my friends talking about their unreasonable bosses or politicking in the office. I just have the work, and it is good."

The labour movement has been promising to throw its weight further behind freelancers, a group that has been notoriously difficult to unionise due to its diverse nature.

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Chan Chun Sing said at a remembrance ceremony for late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew last month that freelancers "require new forms of services to take care of... and protect their interests".

He added: "The labour movement has evolved new models to help them, even though they are not technically union members. But they are our associate partners, and through the new partnership we want to make sure we can take care of them."

NTUC revealed in February that it plans to hold a job fair for freelancers, where those looking to market their services can find buyers while undertaking networking. The fair, whose date is yet to be set, would also bring in services to gather a pool of freelancers, market their services and transact on their behalf.

In Parliament in January, NTUC assistant secretary-general Ang Hin Kee called for policies on freelancing to be updated, noting: "Freelancing may look like frontier town to many of us. Some of the rules appear unclear and the marketplace seems fraught with uncertainty."

True, it has also been looked down upon as the province of the stay-at-home mum and retiree - or the last resort of the retrenched worker. But the changing economy and the needs of a tightening labour market have made it a more viable work option, not just for the likes of tradesmen and drivers, but also high-end professionals such as coders and graphic designers.

Mr Matt Barrie, chief executive of global freelancer portal Freelancer.com, says: "In the olden days, you thought of freelancers as doing data entry, perhaps, but we have software programmers and Web developers, very highly skilled people who are earning more freelancing than they might at a full-time job."

Freelancer numbers in Singapore are hard to pin down. According to Manpower Ministry statistics, the number of "own account workers" in Singapore last year was nearly 170,000, where it has hovered over the past 10 years.

But this number of own account workers - defined as those who are self-employed and do not employ others - may not capture all freelancers. It does not include sole proprietors, some of whom are also freelancers, but encompasses other groups such as taxi drivers, who are beholden to cab firms.

Mr Ang, who is also an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, estimated the number of freelancers to be closer to 200,000 - a figure he believes is likely to go up. "We talked about encouraging entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit in our people," he said in his Parliament speech. "It is a positive sign that there are increasingly more Singaporeans opting for freelance work."

Global online portals for freelancers have observed a significant rise in interest from Singapore recently. Freelancer.com, which has around 80,000 freelancer users here, saw membership in Singapore grow by nearly 39 per cent in the past year - the highest growth it registered in South-east Asia. Another portal, Upwork, saw freelancer registrations here more than triple in the third quarter of last year.

Human resource experts say they are observing a surge in the demand for freelancers as companies try to cut costs in a softening economy.

Ms Linda Teo, country manager of HR consulting firm ManpowerGroup Singapore, says more companies are bringing freelancers in for one-off, creative roles. "Companies can keep costs lean because the freelancer is chalked up not under a permanent headcount but as a project expense. Also, (they) leave once a project wraps up, so there is no redundancy of man hours."

Ms Rynette Tan, 26, turned to freelance website developers and graphic designers to get her online maternity business off the ground.

"I'm a start-up and I don't have the capital to hire an in-house team to manage the site," she says. "Freelancers can give me ad hoc support as and when I need it, and they tend to be about 50 per cent cheaper than the companies I've approached."

Online platforms are also expanding the pool of clients for freelancers, who previously relied mostly on word-of-mouth for business. PART OF THE GLOBAL MARKET

Now, the pool of clients is no longer confined to the country's borders. On Freelancer.com, the biggest employer for Singapore users is the United States, where 30 per cent of the jobs filled here originate. South-east Asia regional director Evan Tan says this is due to the stronger US dollar, and also because US employers post 15 times more jobs than Singapore ones.

The lifestyle itself is evolving, as freelancers juggle more than one line of work and turn to technology to expand their reach. It appeals especially to millennials who do not want to be tied down to one job, and to parents who want flexible work hours so they can spend more time with their children.

Former journalist Eve Yap, 57, turned to freelance writing in 2001 so she could spend more time with her children. "I recall one particular night when I returned home at 8.30pm, and my daughter Beth (who was 51/2) said: 'Wow, so early, Mummy!'" She returned to full-time work when her children were in their teens, but is now freelancing again so she can care for her elderly parents, who are in their 80s.

Such independence comes at a price, however. Freelancers are not covered by labour laws and must do without Central Provident Fund support to save for retirement, or employee benefits such as subsidised health care. If they take time off for skills upgrading, NSmen duties or maternity leave, it comes straight out of their incomes.Dodgy contracts and unclear market rates mean they are often at the mercy of clients. If the client refuses to pay their fee, their only forms of recourse are the Small Claims Tribunal and costly civil suits.

Insight looks at seven faces across the spectrum of the freelancer economy today, from the traditional to the technological, from the millennial to the mature veteran.

Some took pay cuts to pursue their passions; others are earning more than they would have as salaried employees. Each faces different challenges in this "frontier town", but all cherish the freedom that comes with it.


This article was first published on April 10, 2016.
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