A fairer deal for freelancers

About 10 per cent of the Singapore workforce is composed of freelancers and the self-employed.

Media freelancers - camera operators, sound technicians, writers, directors, photographers and game developers - are a key sub-group.

There are about 40,000 of them, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information. Media work is sporadic and varies in size, so the many small shops that make up a significant part of the industry cannot survive without these freelancers.

Their life is especially precarious because the work is creative and project-based. The employer can make a freelancer work long hours or under dangerous conditions. Later, he can claim to be unhappy with the work, and withhold or reduce the agreed fee. He can fire a freelancer with impunity or claim insolvency and drag out the payment. As film-maker Jasmine Ng said: "Within the film and TV community, every single practitioner would know someone who has had late-or non-payment issues."

To promote fair workplaces for freelancers, the Tripartite Standard on the Procurement of Services from Media Freelancers (TS Media Freelancers) was announced in March this year, and last week, it took effect. From April 1 next year, companies must adhere to it to qualify for grants from the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) and funding for Public Service Broadcast content. Major producers such as HBO and Mediacorp have pledged support.

The new measures might not eliminate bad employers overnight, but they at least give freelancers the power to choose to work only for those who have signed on to protect their welfare.

In the media industry, the IMDA is uniquely poised to make a difference because through its grants, it is a major sponsor of work. It has the carrot, and by withholding that carrot, it also has a stick. The measures may also serve as a test bed for rules to give wider protections to other freelancers, from taxi drivers to real estate agents.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2017, with the headline 'A fairer deal for freelancers'. Print Edition | Subscribe