Whether for fun or profit, freelancing is a lucrative way of making money on the side. But as technology becomes cheaper, the barriers of entry into business are also lowered.
The Department of Statistics reveal that there are 170,000 freelancers in Singapore. The numbers do not tell of deeper stories though. Is the lure of freedom and flexibility strong, so much that people chose not to indulge in the security of employment? What are the issues that challenge freelancers daily?
Brandon Soh, 25, a graphic designer shares his experience, “If I work for an agency, I’ll pocket $2400 a month – flat. Contrast that to the $500 – $800 for each piece of design work”. In the short term horizon, it does seem to look like a better deal. A fledgling designer requires only a client or two to make up for a monthly salary but spends far less time working. If this person is willing to put in a little more effort, build a strong brand for himself and spend a little more time selling his services, it could turn out to be a comfortable way to make a living. As the years go by, his repertoire of work increases and with responsible career management, freelancing can be a stable form of long term income.
“I work everywhere. McDonalds in the morning, Starbucks in the afternoon. I sit at the library for inspiration, I can be with my clients on demand. My MacBook liberates me from the table and there really is no need to be in an office, I’ve even read of freelancers who work on pleasure boats!” Brandon says with a coy smirk.
Perceived stability, an unspoken ideal of most Singaporeans. Without promotions, insurance, FLEX benefits and CPF contributions, what attracts individuals into freelancing? “Stability is rubbish… who is to say that you won’t get fired tomorrow? When I first started, yes my family was bothered. No promotions, no insurance and at times no business for weeks – they were not supportive at all. My friends insisted I ‘go and find a proper job’… but I knew I had to keep going to prove them wrong”. And prove them wrong Brandon did. On good months, he pockets between $10 – $15k and on average his yearly income is about $50-$60k, same and even better than his peers. His girlfriend is supportive. She’s employed and working as an administrator with a logistics firm. The couple secured a BTO and are eagerly waiting to move in when it is ready in 2014. “Life is for living right? If you wake up each morning wondering what the hell you’re doing, dragging yourself to the shower – then that’s wrong. I don’t have that problem, I don’t enslave myself with fluffy ideals of ‘stability’, so what if I don’t get CPF? I just sign another client and that’s my CPF!”
To compensate for this lose, Edmund Sim, 32, a full-time wedding photographer, shared some ideas with us. “I’m not bothered by lack of CPF or benefits, but what would be really good if there is a central resource that could provide for cheaper training, legal assistance and even insurance. Full time employees are given insurance protection but as for us, we are on our own. Yes we chose to be, but if I was a bank, I would develop a low-cost insurance program targeted at freelancers”.
Several months ago, news of a local wedding photographer, Caleb Chong broke out on the internet. The hiring couple accused him of delivering substandard work. The couple setup a blog to document their experience and in one of the posts, discussed legal action with the online community. Online rumours claim that Caleb had been sued for a large sum of money, but he has his sympathisers: Could he have protected himself better? What limit to damages could he have penciled into his contract?
I asked Edmund if he was aware of a department in the NTUC that offers free legal advice available to their members. This magazine ran a story earlier about a PMET department that offers legal and training services. “It would be most useful – we’re not lawyers and our English is not that fantastic…let alone understanding legal jargon. And until you spoke with me, I didn’t even know that we could be heard in a Small Claims Court”.
Many freelancers have a bag of stories about horror clients to tell: the production house that does not want to pay for rehearsals, the client that refused to pay because she thought your “design was bad”, the client who delays payment and then subsequently goes out of business. Legal action is difficult to pursue and one-man vendors are routinely intimidated out of fair payment. “Its them against us. They have all the legal advice and lawyers at their call. What about us? I have so many payments written off because even I myself am not sure if I should push for payment or not… and even if I do, lawyers are so expensive… not worth the trouble,” shares Brandon. At times, clients also use the threat of switching vendors to keep the freelancer silent.
This is the reality of the market, many freelancers don’t pursue for payment simply because it is not worth it. Many organisations practice a two tranche payment system – 50% downpayment and 50% upon delivery, same for individuals. It is not uncommon then, to hear of clients holding the second tranche of payment ransom…even not fulfilling payment for a variety of reasons, even after project has been delivered and accepted. This is wrong, a bad practice and this magazine believes collective pressure and action must be taken against companies who practice this. Free legal advice is provided by the NTUC and accessing their services is as simple as being a member and ringing up their hotline.
Bullied into accepting lower pay
To some freelancers, price is synonymous respect and pride. Everyone loves a bargain, but what happens when a client pushes for a price that becomes disrespectful? “We know (price) can vary greatly, but when you start to request $300 for an all-day photography session, then that is wrong,” said Edmund. To add to this challenge, every student fresh out of school wants to milk money from what they’ve learnt. There have been reports of customers paying only token sums for work that cost many man-days to produce. “There must be certain pride to your work. Look, the customer is going to sue you anyway if you produce sub-standard work… why not charge a decent sum to start with? At least be happy! Any photographer with self-worth will never accept a token fee!”
Some of the bargaining points clients use include: building your portfolio, doing for passion, citing “long-term-business”, ambiguous promise of larger contracts or even threatening to go to a cheaper vendor. Using excuses like these to push for less pay may already hint that this is a client that does not respect your work and consistent stories tell that such clients could end up being unreasonable, demanding and introduce many new requirements/requests after the deal has been sealed.
“What I really hate, is when a potential customer tells you they want long term business, give them cheaper… that really gets my goat. Look, if you want to do long term business then start paying more! If I can’t survive, then what long term are you talking about”? said Edmund with a frustrated frown.
Edmund took a sip of coffee, mused a little and brought up the bane of all Singaporeans: National Service. “We don’t have full-time pay, we don’t have someone else to cover our work and when we stop selling, our income stops coming in… and for what? Let’s be honest, no one really wants to go for reservists, but if we are obliged by law to do so, I really hope the country would make it easier for people like us”.
I reminded Edmund of MINDEF’s famous template reply,”Everyone has work commitments….”. If the life of a photographer is a career that he chose and if he is ready to accept life without CPF, can he also not accept life with NS disruptions? A self-employed soldier has to declare his salary and he will be compensated duly. “Yes but, how can I forecast how much I earn and what about lost opportunities and urgent work. And what if I have only just started and do not have proof of income (via an income tax statement)”? he enquired.
To this magazine’s knowledge, in such a situation, soldiers can produce a simple profit/loss statement and submit it for claims. A committee will decide the compensation amount. We do agree however that MINDEF could introduce policies that would make the careers of all national servicemen easier. Simple ideas such as the ability to bring computers into camp, flexible time-off and shorter training cycles should be explored. Economic warfare is a higher possibility than violent warfare and deep pockets contribute more to a modern society than deep trenches.
No job is easy and every career path requires work and effort – more so a freelancer. There is no healthcare plan, no employment benefits, no CPF and you’re on your own to fight when legal issues creep up. It does however, offer the flexibility of time and financial management and for individuals like Edmund and Brandon, this is true work-life benefit.
In the words of Brandon, “I’d rather work hard and make myself rich… than to work hard and make someone else rich”.