Late payments, lack of savings worry freelancers

When local freelance photographer Ukay Cheung, 43, sprained his back five years ago, he was out of action for two weeks.

If he had been in the midst of a project, such as a five-day shoot, "it would have been bad", said the father of one and sole breadwinner. His clients, however, agreed to postpone the scheduled shoots.

"As a freelancer, if you can't work, it means you have no income," he said, explaining why he forks out about $200 a month on income protection coverage.

It is a rider on his personal accident insurance and pays about $800 a week if an accident stops him from working for more than two days.

A government-initiated workgroup wants freelancers to be offered a similar but standalone insurance product that will give them some income during prolonged illness or injury. It is one of seven recommendations made by the tripartite group that looked at ways to better support freelancers.

It also proposed that freelancers contribute to Medisave whenever they earn a service fee, instead of after a year's work. To ease the process, the clients should transfer part of their payments to the freelancer's Medisave account.

This model is favoured by some freelancers as it helps to control spending, but others said it should not be mandatory.

Freelance director Jasmine Ng, president of the Singapore Association of Motion Picture Professionals, said late payments are a common problem, and some can be even nine months late. As a result, freelancers may prefer to have cash in hand for a year before putting any money in their Medisave accounts.

But she said firmer guidelines and a culture of standard contracts, as recommended by the workgroup, would help people to better plan their finances "because they know they will be paid on time".

Mr Muhammad Shiddiq Abd Hamid, who has been a freelance occupational therapist for eight years, hopes companies can manage the Medisave transfers for freelancers.

"It is a win-win situation because the company takes a load off freelancers and it serves as a talent retention strategy," said the 36-year-old.

Grab, for example, has been contributing to drivers' Medisave accounts since last March.

Freelancer platform Caregiver Asia is also keen to work with the Central Provident Fund Board to make it easier for users to contribute to their own Medisave accounts through its platform, said its chief executive Yeo Wan Ling.

A lack of retirement savings is another worry. About 86 per cent of freelancers aged 55 and older do not meet the Basic Retirement Sum, compared with 42 per cent of regular employees in the same age group, the workgroup noted. But it said raising compliance with the Medisave rules is more urgent.

Professional Photographers Association (Singapore) honorary secretary John Yuen welcomed the proposal for freelancer associations to come up with competency frameworks for their occupations.

For instance, the photography profession has differing levels of competence and pricing. "This creates problems for both photo buyers and photographers," he said.

Freelancers told The Straits Times they hope the Government will look into other areas, including curating courses in financial management, accountancy and marketing as well as on their legal rights.

Ms Ng also hopes for support to create a centralised portal of information tailored for freelancers in her industry.

Seven recommendations to support the self-employed

• Offer an insurance product that provides a daily income during prolonged illness or injury.

• Promote the adoption of insurance in higher-risk jobs by making it a requirement for licensing or government procurement contracts.

• Explore a new Medisave model so freelancers must contribute whenever they earn a service fee, and gig platforms and corporate service buyers transfer a portion of payments to the freelancer's Medisave account.

• Look at how to roll out the contribute-as-you-earn model for Medisave.

• Come up with a Tripartite Standard for companies to publicly commit to using written contracts with freelancers, with certain key terms.

• Provide more avenues to mediate payment-related disputes through sector agencies, and extend the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management's voluntary mediation services to freelancers.

• Develop competency frameworks for the various freelancer occupations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline 'Late payments, lack of savings worry freelancers'. Subscribe