Seven faces of the freelance economy

Seven faces of the freelance economy

THE YOGA TEACHER: Skills and mat are all that's needed

NAME: Peggy Chan

AGE: 64

JOB: Yoga instructor

A FREELANCER FOR: 15 years

EARNS PER MONTH: Between $1,800 and $2,500

ADVICE FOR OTHER FREELANCERS: "Freelancing is not for everyone. You need to consider your financial circumstances. If you have to pay for housing loans or children, your priority should be a stable income."

When her yoga students become friends, that is when freelance instructor Peggy Chan is most satisfied with her work.

"Over time, students tend to open up about their lives and we form a deeper connection," she says.

The free-spirited 64-year-old singleton also likes that she does not have to answer to superiors. "That also means when something (bad) happens, I kena (get into trouble)," says Ms Chan, a former travel agent.

A yoga teacher for the past 15 years, she has six students ranging from 40 to 70 years old. Ms Chan says older students "appreciate the one-on-one sessions and know better what they want", as opposed to a younger crowd who might still be figuring out what classes suit them best.

Ms Chan sells 10-lesson packages at between $80 and $100 a session and conducts group sessions. These work out to an income of $1,800 to $2,500 a month. Each lesson lasts an hour at her students' homes.

She has to keep a few hours free each day in case students need to reschedule their lessons. She also keeps three slots open every day.

"Freelancing is tough because you have to find your clients, and it's a niche, a certain type of people who want your services," says Ms Chan. "There are so many yoga instructors. Why would they want to pick you?"

The worry is that students may not sign up again after 10 classes or that she does not get paid on time.

"Some want to stop because they are relocating or want to get pregnant," she says, noting that she takes students only through recommendation.

On being able to cover her expenses, she says: "My income fluctuates so it's hard to predict whether I can make enough in a month."

She adds that she has to pay only for her own bills, food and other necessities.

She lives with a cousin and another flatmate in a Housing Board unit near Geylang. She also rents a studio at a nearby shopping mall to teach groups, but did not want to comment on the rent.

Freelancing really works for her because all she needs are the skills and a yoga mat, she says.

The pared-back life is a far cry from when she was 19 and started work at a multinational travel agency here, going on to London for 20 years in the same line, and fitting in her own travel to the United States, Europe and South America.

"I knew that I wanted to be in the travel or hotel industry because I want to see the world and talk to people," Ms Chan recalls.

After returning to Singapore in her 40s, Ms Chan became a freelance tour agent. She used to earn $4,000 a month when employed by agencies, but as a freelancer, earnings could hit $10,000.

This gig lasted until the mid-1990s when the Internet changed how people did their travel arrangements, and profits shrank.

"People were going online to book their own tickets. They didn't need travel agents," she says.

Ms Chan started to get serious about yoga, which she had picked up in London, and opened a studio in Upper Circular Road around 1995. It ran for about six years before competition and rising rents forced her to close it.

A former student later called to check if she was still teaching yoga. Ms Chan decided to teach freelance."That was how it began, and I have enjoyed the job ever since."

THE HANDYMAN: "Ah Beng" kind of job? It gives him freedom

NAME: Desmond Toh

AGE: 45

JOB: Handyman

A FREELANCER FOR: 23 years

EARNS PER MONTH: $3,000-$4,000

ADVICE FOR OTHER FREELANCERS: "You can't just stay at home every day. You have to go out, make friends." As a teenager, Mr Desmond Toh would help his father fix up old attap (thatched) houses in kampung villages. It gave him a taste of working with his hands.

Now 45, Mr Toh has been a freelance handyman for more than 20 years. Many look down on his profession as "an Ah Beng-Ah Seng kind of job", he says (referring to being uncultured), but he has never contemplated a change.

"I don't feel like being tied down," he says. "I want the freedom to be my own person."

From morning to night, he drives from home to home around the island, installing lights, painting walls, repairing furniture - you name it. "If you're willing to pay," he says, "I'm willing to do it."

He pulls off around four to five jobs a day, rushing from Pasir Ris to Bukit Batok to Tampines.

The back of his 19-year-old Mercedes Vito van is stuffed with the tools of his trade. A wood-cutter fits snugly up against stacked bottles of thinner and floor cleaner; a step ladder balances on top of drawers of screws in all sizes.

He prefers to work alone. "I found I cannot trust other people," he admits. "It takes me half an hour to install a light, but what if it takes my worker two hours? What if he breaks the light? How do I explain to the customer?"

Mr Toh became an electrician on graduating from the Institute of Technical Education. To win more jobs, he taught himself to expand into other areas - air-con maintenance, for example, and carpentry.

He earns about $3,000 to $4,000 a month, although about $1,000 goes to expenses such as maintaining his van and health insurance.

"I don't have CPF," he says. "But I stopped worrying about it."

His chosen path means working odd hours, as many of his clients prefer him to visit after 5pm when they are home from work. He is usually still tinkering with appliances at 9pm or 10pm, and has been up as late as 2am rushing a job. He works on Saturday too, but his wife, 35, put her foot down when it came to sacrificing family time on Sunday with their daughter, 16, and son, five.

The bulk of his business comes through word of mouth. In the old days, he would get his friends who ran hardware stores to recommend him to customers. In recent years, he has started using phone apps such as ServisHero, which he can check on the go.

These apps have come in handy during leaner months such as June, when his customers often go overseas for holidays.

Mr Toh is aware that there are not many tradesmen like him around. "Nowadays in Singapore, it is quite difficult to find handymen," he says. "Young locals don't want to learn this trade because it is considered a dirty job."

Instead, he faces competition from foreign handymen who undercut his prices. "Maybe you charge $100 for a job, but the Malaysians come in and will do it for $50. We're worried now that when we raise the price, some home owners don't want to pay."

He adds: "Often they don't pay us on the spot because sometimes, something happens to the thing we fixed. Perhaps they damage it. Then they want us to go back and fix it again for free.

"We must say no at some point. Otherwise how do we survive?"

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