Advisory committee on gig workers does not rule out laws to protect workers

The committee, tasked to look into protections for gig workers, has zeroed in on three priority areas.
The committee, tasked to look into protections for gig workers, has zeroed in on three priority areas.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - A committee tasked to look into protections for gig workers is not ruling out legislative changes in working towards a fairer and more balanced relationship between such workers and the companies they work for.

Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower Koh Poh Koon, who is adviser to the Advisory Committee on Platform Workers, told the media that the committee will consult widely so that it can come up with a balanced set of recommendations by around the second half of next year.

Gig workers include delivery riders, private-hire car drivers and taxi drivers.

When asked what will come out of the committee’s work, he suggested that some of the recommendations may involve legislative change or a set of guidelines by unions, workers and employers. 

He also stressed that the committee, which met for the first time on Wednesday (Sept 15), is still in the early stages of its work.

The committee, which was announced during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally last month, has zeroed in on three priority areas.

It wants to improve retirement and housing adequacy of such workers, ensure they have adequate financial protection in case of work injury, and close the gap in bargaining power between such workers and the platforms that they work for.

Economics professor Danny Quah, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and vice-chairman of the committee, said: "Many of these (workers)... lack basic job protections in a way that's quite different and unequal relative to other kinds of workers in our economy.

"So some of (our work) is simply a matter of levelling the playing field."

As self-employed people, platform workers contribute about 8 per cent to 10.5 per cent of their income to their MediSave, but the companies they work for do not have to make Central Provident Fund contributions for them.

Such workers are also at greater risk of accidents and injury, by virtue of being on the road more often.

As they are not considered employees, they are also not covered under the Employment Act and are not able to form unions.

This means they have no access to the collective bargaining and dispute resolution mechanisms provided by the unions.

PM Lee had said during the National Day Rally that he was especially concerned about this group of lower-wage workers, who toil for modest incomes and lack basic protections.

Institute for Human Resource Professionals chairman Goh Swee Chen, who chairs the advisory committee, hopes platform companies will recognise the important role that such workers play in their business.

She added that consumers are also becoming more discerning and will also look not just at the benefits that the platforms bring, but also at how they treat their workers.

"Ensuring their well-being is not just a pro-worker stance, but it also helps the sustainability of the business as they continue to grow and prosper in this particular segment," she said.

To take in the views of platform companies, such as Grab, foodpanda and Deliveroo, the committee will form a resource panel through which these stakeholders can provide feedback directly.

This arrangement would allow the competing platforms to participate more openly and even share commercially sensitive data than if they were all on the same committee, Dr Koh said.

He added that the committee would work with these companies to gain a deeper understanding of the workers through their work performance data, such as how long they work and what their average earnings are.

A key issue that many countries have had to grapple with is how such workers can be afforded basic protections while still allowing them the flexibility of working for several different companies.

Acknowledging the concerns of the workers and the platforms about how the recommendations may impact their work and earnings, Dr Koh said: "We do want to make sure that we don't end up over distorting the market place, and to preserve some of the flexibility that both the platform operators and workers desire."

Asked who would bear the costs if changes are implemented, Dr Koh said he expects that it would fall on different parts of the ecosystem, including on consumers.

Prof Quah added that even if nothing is done to provide basic protection for these workers, there would be no "free ride for society", as there would eventually be social costs to bear.

"Whether we acknowledge it or not, if we don't have social protection, our workforce is not sustainable, company's profitability will not be sustained. 

"At the end of it all, we will all... bear the cost in an invisible way," he said.

The 15-member committee is made up of representatives from the Government, industry, labour movement and academia.

It was set up by Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, to look into the growing problem faced by platform workers.

Around the world, gig-economy companies have faced growing criticism and legal challenges over their treatment of their workers. Considered contractors, they are often not afforded basic entitlements like paid annual and medical leave.

Some large gig platforms have started providing some protection, or benefits such as access to skills training courses and free accident insurance.

The most recent figures from MOM showed there were 228,200 resident workers engaged in own-account work – such as freelancers or those who are self-employed – last year.

This is up from 211,000 in 2019.

Dr Quah said the number was likely to grow, with the advancement in technology pushing people further in the direction of gig work, and the Covid-19 pandemic upending established traditional ways of working.