Freelancers for honestbee feeling the sting

An honestbee shopper checking an app through which shoppers receive orders they have to fill at supermarkets. The firm's CEO and co-founder Joel Sng said shoppers' pay fluctuates based on customer demand.
An honestbee shopper checking an app through which shoppers receive orders they have to fill at supermarkets. The firm's CEO and co-founder Joel Sng said shoppers' pay fluctuates based on customer demand.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Local e-grocer's personal shoppers complain of rate cuts, late pay, communication woes

Racing around supermarkets picking groceries, choosing the shifts you like and earning up to $14 an hour as a personal "shopper bee" sound ideal.

But some freelance shoppers who scour supermarket shelves for local online grocery concierge honestbee say all is not well in the hive.

Unexpected cuts to basic rates, late or incomplete payments, and a lack of communication with the management are among the grouses that the shoppers who work for honestbee noted when they spoke to The Straits Times.

While the company advertises on its website that one can rake in up to $14 an hour, the shoppers said they rarely hit this rate - perhaps during festive periods - or not at all.

Banking and finance university student Nicole Lee, 23, said shoppers are paid a basic rate of $5 an hour - down from around $7.50 last year, and $6 before last month. They earn extra through "line item bonuses", or 20 cents for each different type of item picked for an order.

Ms Lee said: "The $14 per hour is unachievable, except during Chinese New Year." She added that working during festive periods meant picking groceries non-stop for 12 hours, fighting crowds and doing "back-breaking work" like carrying 10kg of packet drinks per order.

CALL FOR BETTER PROTECTION

We are concerned that the freelancers could be unduly disadvantaged in the drafting of contractual terms, and that they should be better protected from issues such as late payment or non-payment.

NATIONAL TRADES UNION CONGRESS ASSISTANT SECRETARY-GENERAL ANG HIN KEE, on freelancer rights.

Another shopper, who wanted to be known only as Ms Tan, 40, said she could earn about $400 a week last year for 20 to 30 hours' work, but now earns about $150 to $200 after the rate cuts.

She is not reimbursed for calling customers on her cellphone, which can cost about $70 a month. She also said the bonus system disadvantages those assigned bulk orders of a single item. She once had to carry 90 1.5-litre bottles of water in one hour. "All that for 20 cents more," she said.

Shoppers for honestbee also said their pay - credited to them weekly - has often been late by a few days and not tallied accurately. These discrepancies have ranged from a few dollars to more than $600 once for a 43-year-old female shopper, who declined to be named.

Mr Joel Sng, honestbee's chief executive and co-founder, said shoppers' pay fluctuates depending on customer demand, and thus moves both up and down. There are times when hourly rates shoot up to $20, he said. He added that a shopper earns an average of $9.70 per hour. "This is significantly higher than the typical part-time pay of $7 per hour in similar industries."

He admitted that there have been "a few instances" when payments were delayed, but said these were resolved in one working day. "This was during a period of high growth for our business, for which we had limited capacity to manage the additional workload."

He added that honestbee now has so many shoppers - more than 1,800 - that they had to be moved to a holding company in February to better manage them. The company aims to double the number of shoppers by the end of the year.

Most of the 10 shoppers interviewed said that, despite their displeasure with the company, they wanted to stay on as they needed flexible hours.

A 38-year-old shopper, who is expecting his firstborn son "any day now", said he could not start a full- time job and take paternity leave at the same time. He declined to be named but said: "Our medical costs are rising and we are barely making ends meet as it is."

As freelancers, shoppers are not covered by the Employment Act.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Ang Hin Kee, who has previously pushed for freelancer rights in Parliament, said similar disputes could rise in the future as more businesses engage freelancers instead of full-time staff.

He said: "We are concerned that the freelancers could be unduly disadvantaged in the drafting of contractual terms, and that they should be better protected from issues such as late payment or non-payment. We will be looking at working with organised groups of freelancers to impart the necessary know-how."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Freelancers for honestbee feeling the sting'. Print Edition | Subscribe