Online freelancers the new labour pool

Ms Teo Jia En, co-founder of home-rental website Roomorama, has hired online freelancers since starting her business in 2009 and plans to continue. She is among a growing number of Singapore business owners who are tapping such workers to grow their
Ms Teo Jia En, co-founder of home-rental website Roomorama, has hired online freelancers since starting her business in 2009 and plans to continue. She is among a growing number of Singapore business owners who are tapping such workers to grow their businesses while keeping costs low.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Firms finding cheaper ways to do business amid labour crunch

At home-rental portal Roomorama, freelancers are a permanent fixture.

They do design, research, translation, data-mining and even sales at the Singapore-based website for short-term rentals.

"I don't need to worry about paying for Central Provident Fund contributions or bonuses," said co-founder Teo Jia En, 32, who has relied on flexible labour since starting the business in 2009.

"I have saved about 50 per cent of my operating cost by hiring freelancers," added the boss of 35 permanent staff.

Like Roomorama, more Singapore firms are hiring temporary staff who work remotely, and the demand is met by a growing supply of these online workers.

A tight labour market and increasing costs have prodded firms to find cheaper ways of doing business, while workers are drawn by the flexibility.

For companies, hiring freelancers who work off-site means they do not have to set aside office workspace. For freelancers, it means they do not have to commute and can even work for firms outside Singapore.

Elance-oDesk, a United States business that runs two leading websites for freelancers who work remotely, told The Straits Times that at the end of last year, about 37,000 freelancers in Singapore were registered with it - 10,000 more than in 2013.

About 30,000 Singapore businesses are registered with it.

Elance-oDesk said businesses here are also spending more on online freelancers, making Singapore its top Asian market.

Last year, firms here spent 46 per cent more on online freelancers, compared with 2013. The actual amount they spent will be announced later, said Elance-oDesk.

Its country manager here, Mrs Kristine Lauria, said there is huge potential for the online freelance market here. "Businesses can tap an international network of freelancers... Singapore workers also have skills in demand from businesses overseas, such as language translation," she said.

Bosses said they usually spend about $200 to $300 to hire an online freelancer for about a fortnight and have hired them from India, Indonesia, Europe and the US. They said online freelancers can start work quickly, while it takes at least a month to recruit permanent or contract staff.

On Elance-oDesk, which takes a cut of the freelance fees, business owners can hire someone in hours. They post job descriptions and look at freelancers' profiles for things such as portfolios, reviews from previous clients and their asking price.

One drawback, though, is that bosses need to give clear instructions to off-site freelancers as they cannot walk over to check what the workers are doing.

Singapore freelancers said working online allows them to manage their time but competition is tough. "You are competing with people from all over the world, some of whom are quoting single-digit fees per hour," said freelance writer Joanne Poh, 30, who was previously a lawyer.

It also takes time to earn a steady income. Mr Keith Lee, 35, a freelance animation designer, said it took him a year to earn a "few thousand a month" through Elance-oDesk. "It takes time to build a name... But it is worth it. I am earning slightly more than what I took home from my previous full-time job," he added.

ameltan@sph.com.sg