Don't rejig the gig economy

Don't rejig the gig economy
PHOTO: The Straits Times

After all, a number of Uber and GrabCar drivers are in the role while looking for permanent jobs

I've taken quite a few Uber and GrabCar rides in the last week or two.

During such journeys, I like talking to the drivers and finding out more about the men, and the occasional woman, behind the wheel.

The drivers I've met fall into three general categories: the ex-taxi driver sick of high rental costs imposed by cab companies; people out to make some extra dollars on top of their regular jobs; and those who have been retrenched.

It is this last group which I found particularly interesting.

One driver I rode with, who looked to be in his 30s, had worked in logistics and held what sounded like a key role in a multinational logistics firm.

He regaled me with tales of how he used to boast to family and friends that he was the first to lay hands on the latest iPhones when the shipments arrived in Singapore.

But falling exports led to him being retrenched recently.

Having a family to take care of meant he did not have the luxury of being able to take a sabbatical until he could find another job.

So he turned to Uber to tide himself over while job hunting.

He openly admits this is not exactly his cup of teh tarik, but he is doing it anyway because he needs the money.

His story moved me and when I reached my destination, I wished him all the best in finding another job.

His story also made me think that perhaps, Singapore is barking up the wrong tree when it comes to regulating such industries.

The Land Transport Authority is looking to impose rules that, among other things, require drivers at private-hire car services to sit for a vocational licence, like how taxi drivers do.

By the first half of this year, these drivers will also have to go for medical tests and background screenings and comply with a demerit points system.

More recently, a labour MP said he would raise in Parliament the need to help people working in the so-called gig economy receive fair work terms such as overtime pay, CPF (Central Provident Fund) contributions and medical benefits.

Some of these suggestions are clearly well-meaning, especially background checks on the drivers - which will go a long way in ensuring the safety of passengers.

But overtime pay? CPF?

In such jobs, workers put in as many or as few hours as they want or can.

You drive more, you earn more, it is as simple as that.

Their equivalent of overtime is what Uber calls "surge" - where increased demand in a particular location at a particular time means fares go up and drivers earn more each trip.

Making such companies contribute CPF to their drivers may not necessarily be a good thing for the drivers.

They are likely to end up paying the drivers less up front.

Also, most of these drivers are looking for cash in hand, rather than money sitting in a pot that they can dip into only when they turn 55.

Of the tens of drivers I've encountered since I started using such apps more than a year ago, most have been driving for less than six months.

I cannot say for sure if most of the estimated 25,000 Uber and Grab drivers see this as a long-term job or more of a stopgap.

But from those I've spoken to, many do not see it as a permanent thing but something to earn them extra income in their free time or to tide them over a bad period.

Which is why I encountered many real estate agents driving for Uber last year when the property market dipped.

When you have no job and need the money, there is no time to think about the size of your CPF or your health benefits.

You just want your bank account to grow. We should not look to impose too many conditions on the gig economy.

After all, long before Uber and GrabCar came along, a lot of people did gig jobs with no CPF or other benefits - like pub singers, freelance writers and private tuition teachers.

The gig economy works well for certain groups of people, be it the retrenched, the hardworking or even retirees.

Are we so sure they need "fair work terms"?

After all, the definition of gig is a job which is "usually short and of an uncertain duration".

Extra rules and conditions may make it more difficult for people who need such gig jobs to get interim work, forcing them into the unemployment numbers.

It may be better not to fix something if it ain't broke.

This article was first published on Jan 16, 2017.
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