Reconsider if Singapore's freelancers are 'free agents'

In her commentary on freelance workers, managing editor Fiona Chan attempted to use the framework devised by global consultancy firm McKinsey to describe the Singapore labour force (Dealing with a growing dependence on independent workers; March 26).

The McKinsey framework divides these "independent workers" into four categories:

•The "casual earners", such as students, retirees and caregivers, who take side jobs for supplemental income and do so by choice.

•The "free agents", who actively choose to engage in independent work and derive their primary income from it.

•The "reluctants", who prefer traditional jobs but end up earning their primary income from independent work.

•The "financially strapped", who do supplemental independent work out of necessity.

The 70 per cent of Singapore freelancers who work in fields such as "taxi drivers, hawkers and property agents" were classified by Ms Chan as "free agents".

Such sweeping categorisation relies heavily on nebulous interpretations of "choice", with regard to workers' motivations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a large number in this group are, in fact, older workers struggling with the rising cost of living, lacking paper qualifications or advanced skill sets, or are simply marginalised by ageism and, hence, are compelled to take up their line of work.

These individuals are, by demography and definition, highly unlikely to participate in or gain from the modern gig economy. They are not "solopreneurs" with "portfolio careers".

Moreover, in the Singapore context, there are numerous disincentives to freelance work, such as the lack of employer Central Provident Fund contributions and medical coverage, which makes the notion of "active choice" somewhat suspect.

This would, in effect, place these workers in the "reluctant" or "financially strapped" categories.

Recognising this distinction is crucial, as it helps to shape an appropriate policy response to the issue. In this respect, the proposed "freelancer association" would seem to be an ill-fitting solution.

Our efforts should be concentrated on reducing the numbers of the "reluctant" and "financially strapped" through stronger social safety nets, and on implementing greater legal protections for those who do such work of their own volition.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2017, with the headline 'Reconsider if Singapore's freelancers are 'free agents''. Print Edition | Subscribe