SINGAPORE - Freelancing has long been seen as a frontier town fraught with uncertainty, and those who choose it as lone rangers who rely on word of mouth and the luck of the draw to survive.
But shifts in the employment landscape challenge this perspective, and the labour movement is now throwing its weight behind the rising tide of the freelance economy.
The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) held its first freelancer fair on Wednesday (Sept 7) at the Red Dot Design Museum, to help more than 400 freelancers network and put them in touch with platforms and services they might need.
NTUC assistant secretary-general Ang Hin Kee estimated there are about 200,000 freelancers in Singapore, a growing number that requires a complex ecosystem of support.
"The traditional mode of employment has started to change," said Mr Ang, who is also an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC.
"We want to see working people be able to choose different choices of career - whether employee or freelancer - and have these lead to the same outcome."
This meant ensuring freelancers too have fair employment terms and that their needs, such as medical insurance, skills training, and retirement planning, are met, he said.
While the first fair took place in a physical form, Mr Ang said future iterations could go digital, depending on feedback.
Yesterday's fair featured dialogue sessions with veteran freelancers and booths by 10 "aggregators", or platforms which freelancers can use to find job opportunities.
These range from ServisHero, a mobile app through which freelancers such as handymen or cleaners can bid for jobs, to IoTalents, an online platform for IT professionals.
To ensure fair and timely payment, IoTalents uses an escrow system which holds the amount paid by the buyer in trust and releases it in instalments to the freelancer as tasks are completed.
IoTalents' co-founder Eric Sng said the company was started in the middle of last year after they observed a market shift towards more freelance hiring.
He estimated their user base has increased by 30 per cent every month for the past six months. They now have more than 550 freelancers on board.
Also at the fair were 13 businesses which provide services freelancers might need, such as book-keeping or work space.
Online legal platform Dragon Law helps freelancers create their own legal documents, such as consultancy agreements or intellectual property (IP) protection.
Its marketing manager, Shermin Oh, said: "These are things people don't tend to think about. For instance, if you're a freelance designer and you create for a company, should you license them to use your work? When you need to chase for payment, it's often too late."
Entry to the fair cost $8 for early birds and $12 for tickets on the door, but the price did not deter business consultant Amerline Lee, 37.
"There isn't much done for freelancers, it's always for PMETs (professionals, managers, executives or technicians), or startups," she said.
She left full-time work last September due to illness, and found it hard to get a permanent position on her return to the job market. Instead, she went into freelance accounting, and also does writing and legal document review.
"Right now I'm comfortable with where I am, but it's unstable. I want to see whether there are other freelancers like me here. Maybe we could collaborate to take on bigger accounts."
Ms Vannesa Sim, 24, a freelancer who works in film and TV production, found the fair "slightly cluttered" as several different industries were represented, but said talks such as how to get started in freelancing and safeguard your payment options were useful.
"It's a good start and I hope this support from the labour movement continues," she said, adding that more freelancers need to be proactive in making use of such networking events.
Freelance programmer and woodworker Anura Dias, 24, said it is often difficult to find work if he relies solely on posting ads or word of mouth introductions. Meeting aggregators at the fair might help, he said.
"Being a freelancer can be tough," he said. The longest he has gone without new work is about six months.
But he is determined to press on. "I didn't want to wake up every morning and go to work for someone else. I want to be my own boss."