After his usual gigs dried up, freelance performance artiste Stanley Seah was ready to dig into his savings amassed during the “bumper years” – until a friend introduced him to temporary work as a night-shift manager at a foreign worker dormitory in Tuas. He now works 12-hour shifts in a government quarantine facility, and says the work pays well, but his peers in the industry have not been so lucky.
“A lot of us freelancers are wondering if we should squeeze and try to do work in the arts industry, even at very low rates, or should we take a step back because everyone is struggling? We are all in this hole together, stepping over one another.”
Some work is returning – slowly and mostly digital – but the lucrative gigs such as corporate role-play for leadership training workshops in banks have all but evaporated. The government has encouraged arts groups to digitalise, and although this met with initial resistance from a community who have only known how to perform before a live audience, more of them are taking better to the idea now.
Pivot or sink
In late August, three theatre groups – Pangdemonium, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Wild Rice – launched The Pitch, a short film that shines a light on the financial challenges faced by the arts companies due to a lack of work amid the Covid-19 pandemic. It is free to watch, but also an appeal to the audience for donations.
The participating companies say they have had practically no income since theatres closed earlier this year, which has critically impaired their ability to pay their staff and offer stints to their freelance workers.
Mr Seah says some of his friends in the industry are living off the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS)’s three quarterly cash payouts of S$3,000 each in May, July and October 2020, which is “just enough for survival”.
A website, Ilostmygig.sg, launched in March to collect data on the losses suffered by those in the creative and arts and culture industries, put the figure of income loss at S$30.5 million as at Sept 11, mostly due to projects being cancelled or postponed.
According to Hire Digital, a platform that matches enterprises with vetted freelance professionals, another hard-hit freelancer segment has been those tied to events and video production.
This is because their traditional corporate clients have reduced their budgets or moved to alternatives such as webinars and online conferences which require different skillsets from those that these freelancers provide.
Nicholas Chee, managing director of Sinema Media and executive producer of The Flying Kick Asia production house, testifies to this.Many of his video production freelancer friends have turned to doing Grab delivery to support themselves.
“There are no new jobs for us. In the last two quarters, we have had almost no revenue. Companies are not commissioning any work for now because they have no budget to create videos and have bigger priorities like paying overheads. Our initial plans to start new training programmes under Sinema Media, originally slated for April this year, also had to be put on halt.”
Even full-time video production employees have not been spared the cudgel. Many video production houses have been laying off staff since June because of a dearth of projects.
Many freelancers are hoping for an extension of SIRS, after seeing wage subsidies in the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) extended for up to seven months for the worst-affected sectors.
To date, 190,000 people have received payouts, of whom 100,000 qualified automatically. Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in Parliament last week that the government is studying ways to support self-employed persons (SEPs) who are most vulnerable beyond the existing schemes, but nothing has yet been promised of any SIRS extension.
Already, SIRS has busted the original S$1.2 billion set aside in the Resilience Budget in March, and now costs S$2 billion in total. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also said that about two in three applications have been approved.
Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin says gig workers are a vulnerable and less visible segment of the labour force that often falls through the cracks of the social safety net and labour union coverage. Over the one-year period ending June 2019, there were 211,000 residents engaged in what the MOM terms regular “own account work” (OAW) – those who run their own business without any hired help, for at least six months. The share of own account workers has remained stable at around 8-10 per cent of the resident workforce in the past decade, the ministry tells BT.
According to Dr Chua, ride-hailing drivers, buskers, hawkers and real estate agents ranked among the hardest-hit of the self-employed groups during the “circuit breaker” in April and May. Compared to employees, these “gig economy” workers lack medical and retrenchment benefits and tend also to have less savings, including smaller CPF balances, and healthcare coverage.
But he noted too that the freelancer community is a diverse one with uneven impact from the pandemic.
Among the freelancers whom BT spoke to, insurance agents, freelance creative people for government-commissioned work, and website developers and designers say that their work volume and income levels have somewhat returned to pre-Covid times after a challenging April and May.
For insurers, what saved them was a pivot to virtual modes and processes from May, which allowed them to sell policies to customers online. Jin Ye, a financial services manager at AIA, says sales started recovering to pre-Covid levels from July and in fact spiked in August, the month that the change in critical illness definitions kicked in, spurring many customers to purchase policies before the Aug 26 deadline.
Virtual meetings have now allowed agents to meet more people in a day, both online and offline. Says Ms Jin: “That contributes to an improvement in performance. We have to adapt because online is going to continue to be an additional source of revenue. For those that did not pivot, some of their income levels fell by half.”
The tables have also turned. In April during the “circuit breaker”, some agents thought about finding a second job after earning no commission that month, but now that things have stabilised, more people from other sectors are applying to become insurance agents to diversify their income stream, she says.
For Grab and taxi drivers, while passenger volumes have certainly improved since the “circuit breaker”, business has stagnated.
With the expiry of vehicle rental relief, drivers now have to put in more hours so as to earn the same amount of money as in April and May.
Other freelancers who work digitally are benefiting from overseas openings. Travis Toh, an e-commerce partner at CLEAVE who helps Shopify store merchants grow their online businesses, has been getting more clients from the United States and Canada, for instance.
Ditto for Juliana Iskandar, who does digital marketing for retailers and service providers such as clinics and therapists. While her local jobs have decreased, work for her overseas clients has been on the rise. “Before Covid-19, my clientèle was predominantly – almost 90 per cent – local. Now local work only makes up 40 per cent of my jobs, with international clients mostly from the United States and United Kingdom making up the rest.”
Eileen Chan, talent director at Hire Digital, says this is because gig workers in technical roles such as software development and search engine optimisation are still in high demand. “Their work also has fewer geographic and cultural constraints, and they can usually work with foreign companies open to working with overseas contractors.”
She adds that Hire Digital has seen growing numbers of senior professionals take on freelance engagements for highly skilled, high-value work to build in-demand skills, or as they transition their career to more technical or specialised roles.
There have been ongoing efforts to push for more financial aid for the worst-affected gig economy workers. Maybank’s Dr Chua for instance suggests that SIRS be extended with a lower cash payout of S$2,000 for another two quarters for the worst-hit groups such as Grab and taxi drivers, while those less severely impacted can receive perhaps S$1,000 each for two quarters.
In recent years, fintech firms and insurers such as NTUC Income, Great Eastern and Gigacover have also rolled out policies tailored for freelancers to compensate them for income lost due to medical leave, or hospitalisation.
But most freelancers BT spoke to either do not know about them or did not purchase them because they believe they are already sufficiently covered by their own personal insurance.
Great Eastern was the latest to roll out in June this year an insurance plan for self-employed, freelance and gig economy workers amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in a tie-up with telehealth provider Doctor Anywhere.
It recognised that gig workers may not have the benefit of adequate corporate insurance coverage, in the event of the unforeseen. “GREAT Comprehensive Care” thus provides coverage across hospitalisation income, outpatient care and personal accident, and offers customers online or video medical consultations with Doctor Anywhere.
While unable to provide sales numbers, a Great Eastern spokesperson says that the initial response was “encouraging in the two months”, with “a steady and growing take-up and interest so far…especially for those who are breadwinners”.
NTUC Income also offers a Prolonged Medical Leave insurance plan for freelancers and SEPs if they are unable to work because of illness or an injury. Policyholders can get a daily cash benefit of S$60 to S$200, depending on their policy tier.
Gojek has also tied up with Gigacover to offer a similar insurance scheme to its drivers, while the National Instructors and Coaches Association is offering a 50 per cent subsidy of the first-year annual premium for its members who want to take up the Gigacover or NTUC Income prolonged medical leave insurance.
“However the take-up (of NTUC Income’s SEP insurance scheme) has not been very encouraging,” Jean See, acting director at NTUC’s freelancer unit U FSE, says. She puts it down to the fact that while many recognise the importance of insurance, there is often inertia in taking the step to purchase it.
Some freelancers cite the need for an insurance plan against income loss from cancellations of events, but checks with insurers here showthere is no such product in the market.
Instead, U FSE circumvents this by educating members on ways that they can safeguard their interests to ensure they have recourse when clients cancel on them.
This goes both ways, first by educating companies on proper compensation for freelancers for work already put in, and then educating freelancers on the need for contracts, as some of them may be lax about the need for written pacts, especially with clients with whom they have close ties.
“They will find that when project cancellations happen, all of a sudden it’s very difficult to have a better ground on which to negotiate with the client,” she says. U FSE also provides dispute resolution assistance to members.
Yet, many gig workers say they chose the freelance route with their eyes open, and are prepared to give up employment benefits for the work flexibility that they prize.
Asked if the government should offer freelancers stronger safety nets, AIA’s Ms Jin says the gig economy has always been about natural selection and a survival of the fittest. “It’s not a bad thing as this will clean up the industry of non-performers. Conversely, if the government offers too much assistance, it may cause insurance agents to become lazy,” she says.
Mr Seah also believes that the onus is on gig workers to manage their finances, squirreling away savings during bumper seasons to make up for the slow months.
Mr Toh adds that it is the freelancer’s responsibility to ensure multiple income streams at any one time, so that the impact is minimised should one fail.
Ms Iskandar – who did not qualify for SIRS and suspects it might be because she had set up her freelance business as a private limited company – says she hopes for clearer guidelines on how to qualify for financial assistance. “There is a wide range of freelancers with different operating models and I think the financial help should cater to all these different kinds of models,” she says.
Ms See notes that while freelancers who have registered as sole proprietors or partners can still qualify for SIRS if they meet the other criteria of being an SEP, this is not so for those who form a private limited company, as they would be considered business owners and shareholders, or company directors who draw a salary.
“There are some nuances in that sense. This is one area where perhaps there could be greater clarity, because technically you can incorporate a company or have a registered entity but you may not be a company,” she says.
Ms Chan from Hire Digital says that another way freelancers can find protection is by working with intermediaries such as digital platforms that have guidelines to protect and incentivise both freelancers and clients fairly. “For example, most Hire Digital project payments have a time-based component to ensure that freelancers get compensated for work done even if there are unanticipated or external changes to client projects.”
She also points to responsibility on freelancers’ part to build a track record with a diverse base of clients so that they do not depend too much on any one sector, and can ensure better income security over the long term.
Singapore University of Social Sciences Associate Professor Walter Theseira, however, says that a preference for flexibility and freedom is no reason why there should be a trade-off for social protection.
“The self-employed should rightly face income risk because they can vary their income more based on their work effort and abilities. But they don’t need to face social protection risk, which can be covered through appropriate policy.”
He says that social safety nets give predictable benefits at a predictable price. “Thus, we cannot only consider a worker’s opinion when it comes to deciding whether a social safety net is imposed. We must also consider the interests of society, which will bear less risk when workers who are able to pay for it, are made to pay for social safety protection.
“After all, employees have exactly the same concern as self-employed workers. Many employees would say, ‘Give me my benefits in cash, and I will bear the risk’. But actually, the ones bearing the risk end up being their families and taxpayers.”
A collective voice needed
In a virtual conversation with audience members of The Pitch last Monday, SRT artistic director Gaurav Kripalani points to one silver lining that has come out of the pandemic – the arts companies have rallied together to work with the National Arts Council (NAC) to figure out the next step forward. At this point, they are studying how they can trial live shows for 50 people so as to be able to keep their staff, even if it appears to be a loss-making proposition aggravated by five-digit cleaning bills.
On NAC’s part, it has also set up an Arts Resource Hub to provide creative freelancers resources such as webinars, clinics and access to job openings within the arts and culture and adjacent sectors. So far, it has created more than 6,000 jobs, gigs and training opportunities for arts practitioners, it says.
Ms See from U FSE agrees that a collective voice for standalone freelance workers is crucial to rally for fair and ethical employment practices.
She says that stakeholders find it difficult to help individuals, but would be more prepared to engage with a clear and organised collective voice that has balanced views on the matter. That was how the wheels were set in motion so quickly during the “circuit breaker” to offer financial aid to Grab and taxi drivers.
There is also the need for a national framework of codified norms of what would constitute fair employment terms for gig workers, she says. “Although there are tripartite standards about how to procure services from self-employed workers, there is still a journey to go to have more structure and conversation at the national level of what would constitute fair contracting and treatment for SEPs,” she says.
“If we are looking at social safety nets, we should be looking at how we can ensure that SEPs have a level playing field – for instance, by ensuring that government grants are more mindful that some nano SMEs are basically SEPs, and the same level of assistance should be given to benefit them too.”