, Singapore

What you don't know about Singapore's freelancers

By See Wee Heng

In recent years, more and more Singaporeans have decided to abandon the old traditional Singapore dream of working for an employer and climbing the corporate ladder. These folks have the desire to have a more flexible work schedule and of course enjoy the thrill of being their own boss.

While we applaud and encourage their entrepreneurial spirit, we should also be mindful that they also represent a fast growing group of vulnerable professionals. In Labour MP Mr Ang Hin Kee’s recent Budget Speech in March 2013, he highlighted to the government the concerns of freelancers and how more support should be given to them.

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Who Are Considered Freelancers?

There are lots of names used by freelancers. Some call themselves ‘self-employed’ while the more atas ones brand themselves as ‘consultants’. It is important for us to get ourselves sorted out upfront if someone is a freelancer or an employee. A person is defined as a freelancer if he or she:

- Gets paid after the completion of each project and not on a regular and permanent basis.

- Has control over the choice of individuals, businesses, government bodies and organizations that he or she wants to work for.

- Self-provides the tools, equipment, working place and materials for the completion of the agreed task.

- Provides a service at own account and risk.

- Has the freedom to seek out other business opportunities concurrently while working for the client(s).

Fundamentally, freelancers enter into verbal (bad idea) and written contracts (including online contracts) to deliver certain projects or offer their services within a specific period of time. Other individuals, businesses, government bodies or organizations can engage these freelancers during their course of operations.

That actually means that many of our full time blogger friends are classified as freelancers. Bloggers have control over the companies/brands that they choose to write for and are usually paid after completion of advertorials or banner placements.

They also own the means to provide the service like ownership of domain and delivery of contents through their websites. Full time bloggers need to be on the lookout for clients and run the risk of going hungry (although that is pretty rare for food bloggers) if there are no engagement for particular weeks at a stretch.

Last but not least, they have the freedom to serve more than one client at a time.

Why Are Freelancers Vulnerable?

1.  No CPF, Benefits & Less Legal Rights Compared To Employees

Unlike employed workers, freelancers in Singapore are not legally entitled to statutory protections and benefits accorded to employees, such as Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions, annual leave, medical leave, and rights under labour legislation such as the Employment Act and the Work Injury Compensation Act.

This means that if a full time blogger accidentally sprains his or her fingers while furiously typing out an article, there are no way they can request for medical leave or compensation for injury. The advertorial still needs to be delivered on time.

2.  Pay Increment Is Not ‘Automatic’

A full time blogger needs clients to stay afloat. There are so many other bloggers out in the market for clients to choose from so unless you are the likes of Xiaxue or Ladyironchef you probably do not have the muscle to negotiate too much with the clients.

Unless they enjoy really good relationships with their clients, freelancers usually end up having to work within the budget set by clients.

Unlike salaried workers who are usually given annual pay increment ‘automatically’, freelancers have to justify an increase in their rates based on past performance or other reasons. There tends to be a bit of a haggle over prices and often freelancers are forced to keep rates constant to retain the client.

That scenario may lead to stagnant income in the long run, unless the freelancer manages to convince the client why a raising of rates is justified.

3.  Loss Of Rights To Intellectual & Confidential Property

Freelancers are subject to the terms imposed on them by the buyers of their services and very often it involves the rights to intellectual and confidential property.

Bloggers are more fortunate in a way that they are usually allowed to keep and own their intellectual property (blog content) but the same cannot be said of photographers, designers and web developers.

Young photographers, designers or web developers are often arm twisted to allow clients to obtain full ownership of their intellectual and confidential property at little or no cost.

4.  Slow & Deliberately Delayed Payment

Through regular outreach and engagement with freelance professionals, NTUC found out that timely payment for services rendered is often a challenge for freelancers.

Corporations are usually comfortable with placing freelancers at the last of their payment schedules as freelancers do not usually state (or have the bargaining power to enforce) any binding penalties for late payment, unlike other company vendors who do so. This is a highly flawed perspective - freelancers should be entitled to timely payment for the quality work they do, just like any other vendor.

5.  Inability To Redress Grievances

Unlike unionized employees, freelancers are not able to seek the help of a union to legally represent them in the Industrial Arbitration Court according to existing industrial laws.

Even if clients use their intellectual & confidential property without consent, their only economically viable recourse is through the Small Claims Tribunal or perhaps IPOS, but there are its limitations and constraints.

Bloggers are once again more fortunate in this case where clients are more wary of the social backlash should bloggers launch a viral media assault against their companies.

Leveling The Playing Field

Thankfully things are going to change for the better. Mr Lim Swee Say (Secretary-General of NTUC) has declared that the Labour Movement is actively exploring how the interests of freelance professionals can be better looked after.

NTUC has already forged ahead to equip freelancers with knowledge of their rights and obligations through their e-pocket booklet, legal clinics, Workplace Advisory app and U-dialogue business workshops.

In one recent example, freelance tour guides (facing competition from illegal foreign tour guides) were given more protection for jobs and compensation when Ms Cham Hui Fong (Assistant Secretary-General of NTUC) launched a chapter for collective bargaining for them.

But treating freelancers right should be a collective effort. If you are currently engaging a freelancer, reflect through your dealings with them and explore how you can achieve a win-win situation for both your organization and your freelancer.

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