The talent market is clearly shifting its interest. Just a few decades ago, freelancing and part-time work was considered a thing that retirees do. Today, it is the graduates and 20-somethings that take on freelance work for greater flexibility and exposure.
There are no official statistics for the number of freelancers in Singapore, so an indication would be to look at how active the online freelance community is.
In 2014, Elance-oDesk (an online freelance job matching community) reports over 9.7m freelancers globally. Of this, Singapore has about 37,000 freelancers registered with them.
With the promise of independence, freedom from office bureaucracy and politics, the ability to set your own wages, pace of time and rules, freelance work is establishing itself as a lifestyle of choice for many who are unable or unwilling to fit into the corporate ecosystem.
From driving to accountancy, freelancers are posing a formidable challenge to businesses who think they are well established in a market. Big name advertising agencies are losing work to independent multi-skilled creative people. Large taxi companies are seeing formidable competition faced by private hire drivers made popular by apps such as GrabTaxi.
Technology is certainly adding a boost to the freelance revolution. Talent matching platforms are growing by the day. With accreditation, payment and even project management services, freelancers can seek out business anywhere in the world without leaving their desks.
Although participant numbers are still small as compared to the rest of the workforce, its impact will be reshaping the labour market. One of the questions that you may ask is; what is the true driving force of freelancers? Is it really entrepreunal self starting? Or could it be attributed to worsening income inequality? Or could the high costs of living in Singapore pushing workers to seek out other sources of income?
A designer for example gets paid between $2k to $3k on average, but if she were to seek out her own clients she can get paid the same amount per project. If one wasn’t greedy, two or three of these projects a month would be a very nice way to make a living.
The issue for policy makers though, is the unpredictable nature of this form of work. Freelancers are considered small business owners and completely responsible for their own welfare, income and savings. No client is going to put your interests above their own. CPF contributions are going to be optional, as is insurance.
When the freelance workforce starts to expand, governments are going to have to think about their impact on the rest of society. Have they saved enough for retirement? Will the lack of insurance lead to a need for health authorities to widen protection? What about National Service? How will MINDEF accommodate the irregular nature of income and time management?
Companies also have to consider the effects of a freelance economy on their businesses. People with great talent are better off seeking out business on their own rather than work with you – what will be the corporation’s benefits over self-employment then?
In fact, it might be better for companies to take a more liberal attitude towards freelancing during employment because, realistically it’s going to happen – whether or not they allow it. The rapid growth of the freelance economy is not about temp work but rather experienced professionals seeking more flexibility than traditional employment opportunities can offer.
NTUC has constantly been talking about catering more to the PME market…and for good reason. As the characteristics of the city changes, PMEs are the dominant group of workers in Singapore’s economy. However, it would do them good to pay attention and develop strategies for addressing the needs of freelancers also.
With the setting up of the Private Hire Vehicles association and career oriented talks such as legal forums for freelancers, we can see that the labour movement is making small scratches on the thick hide that is the freelance economy.
What I think we should see now is more leadership from both the administration and the labour movement: what is their approach? how will they be protecting the participants (or not)? what policy and statutory framework will they put into place?
For the freelancers of today and tomorrow, action in these areas will be necessary in planning their own careers.