Non-employed is the new employment

Not too long ago, the only ways you could make money were through full time employment, part-time employment or to strike it off on your own and run a business. There was freelancing, but it wasn’t seen as a legitimate source of income. It was an activity for housewives, unemployed designers and hobby photographers. When someone makes a good living off freelancing, newspapers will be quick to feature them, because they were so rare.

Today, advancements in technology have changed it all.

In the United States, 2.9 million freelancers were already pulling in more than $100,000. And this was 2015.

In Singapore, the freelancing economy is burgeoning. The Ministry of Manpower reveals that today, the freelance economy consists of about 180,000 persons – representing some 8% of our workforce.

Dissatisfied with the jobs they were offered, a higher proportion of people are taking on freelance jobs instead of permanent full-time ones after finishing university.

Full time, permanent employment rate from the NTU’s art, design and media cohort fell from 68% in 2014 to 46.6% last year.


We pause now for a moment to point out an interesting fact: The more skilled, professional freelancers there are in the market… the less the need for a company to hire full-time staff. There is no need for such if one can hire skills on a per-use basis, or rent some time off a freelancer.

This makes the plunge in employment, self-fulfilling and self-entrenching.

Employment exposes one to industries, skills, markets and people that one would not normally have in a freelance capacity. Without these opportunities, a freelancer has to leverage on a variety of networks to fill this void.

“I cannot be complacent”, said Tan Jia Ying, a freelance designer in her mid twenties. “As an introverted person, I’m not a sociable person by nature. I try to signup with as many networking events as possible and allow these events to show me new opportunities”.

For those of us whom are employed, we take it for granted that the company provides us with training, opportunities, skills expansion and networking. For the freelancers, one of the resources they should pay attention to is the NTUC’s Freelancers and Self-Employed (FSEU) unit.

The unit is poised to tackle the unique problems and challenges that afflict the freelance industry. However, a lot has been written about rights, protection and equitability. It is the positive issues, the upgrading, the opportunities and the networking – that has been lacking from the conversation.

This is where the FSEU wields its networking prowess. The unit has the unique ability to connect its members through unions, associations, chambers of commerce, corporations and government bodies.

NTUC has also been meeting different groups of freelancers to help them organise themselves as a society or association so that the Labour Movement can gather views from the ground about their concerns. Such groups include sports coaches, photographers and beauticians.

“We are working with different groups where we run master classes and  bring in speakers who are experts in particular fields. Some photographers are talking about how to expand into drone photography to broaden their market,” said Ang Hin Kee of the FSEU.

Initiatives launched by the unit have been tested at great speed. In the last few months, large scale projects have been launched to connect the members. In June last year was a Creative Freelancer’s Bootcamp, done with the Workforce Development Agency and the Employment and Employability Institute. This included a pilot programme to train freelancers in the creative industries through mentoring and workshops.

A few months later, a Freelancer’s Fair organised at the Red Dot Museum last year. The fair made it possible for participants to immerse themselves into new technologies (such as job platforms) that would facilitate their work and had sessions that connected them to new people and services that would enhance their own work.

At the same time, a new association, the National Private Hire Vehicle’s Association (NPHVA) was setup to defend the interests of the private hire vehicles, such as Grab and Uber.

It (the NPHVA) started out with them wanting things to be fairer for them,” said Mohamad Randy, the assistant director of the FSEU. “When they heard about the regulations, they were concerned about the impact of the regulations on them and wanted to meet with the ministry (of transport) to share their input, so they came to us for help.”

The projects, work, research and representation doesn’t end there. As the gig economy continues to grow, so too has the freelancer unit of the NTUC. Whilst new regulations are necessary (although we have to be careful not to over regulate and disable the industry), we also need new policies and programs to sharpen the skills of the freelancer.



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