Gig workers here need more structural support: Observers
Observers say examining work arrangements and protection for gig workers here makes sense now.
Ride-hailing company Uber's recent move to classify its drivers in Britain as workers - rather than self-employed - offers some ideas on how the gig economy could be managed here.
Uber drivers will be entitled to some employment rights, including paid annual leave, protection against unlawful discrimination and protection for whistle-blowing.
Observers say examining work arrangements and protection for gig workers here makes sense now. This comes as the number of Singaporeans and permanent residents who were regularly freelancing over the 12 months to the middle of last year reached 228,200 - the highest level in at least five years.
"Given the upward trend in people relying on the gig economy as their primary source of income instead of formal work, it is timely to consider enhancing work-related protections afforded to them to ensure that they don't suffer from lower economic security in the long term," said employment lawyer Amarjit Kaur, a partner at Withers KhattarWong.
Professor Hoon Hian Teck, dean of Singapore Management University's School of Economics and a Nominated MP, said: "More can be done to facilitate a re-examination of work arrangements so that gig workers are able to derive job satisfactions and meet their financial needs in an age of technological change."
National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay also called on the Ministry of Manpower last month to review the Trade Unions Act to allow freelancers to be union members.
Mr Tay also proposed amending employment laws or introducing a new law to better protect freelancers and their rights as workers.
Uber's move last month came after the British Supreme Court dismissed the firm's appeal against a 2016 employment tribunal ruling that said its drivers should be classed as "workers" rather than "self-employed".
Observers say that the shift might provide an impetus to review the nature of the working relationship between digital platform providers and gig workers here, but that in the short run, it is unlikely to have a major impact.
For one thing, a key difference between employment laws in both countries is that Britain has a category of working people called "workers". They are in between "self-employed" and "employees"and are not entitled to things like protection against unfair dismissal and statutory redundancy pay, which employees are.
TSMP Law Corporation partner and head of employment Ian Lim also noted that the British court decision may not address other important segments of the gig economy like food delivery riders.
For instance, Uber's move in Britain left out Uber Eats riders.
"Singapore lawmakers and regulators may therefore need to be the ones finding a way to provide gig workers as a whole with minimum benefits and safety nets," said Mr Lim.
The Government here pays for maternity and paternity leave for self-employed people.
Freelancers must also contribute to their MediSave accounts to build up their healthcare savings for retirement, a system which the Government is trying to improve through the Contribute-As-You-Earn programme. Under this scheme, a portion of each service payment is credited to MediSave accounts by service buyers, instead of freelancers making lump sum contributions.
Observers say that what freelancers still lack is provision for paid annual and medical leave, and support for retirement adequacy through Central Provident Fund contributions.
Associate Professor Ravi Chandran, assistant dean (undergraduate academic) at the National University of Singapore's Business School, noted that the Government has been encouraging insurance firms to provide products to support freelancers if they cannot work for prolonged periods.
There has also been a push to encourage companies to buy work injury compensation for them.
Insurers such as Great Eastern, Income, Gigacover and MSIG offer products that provide payouts for prolonged medical leave and hospitalisation.
Some large gig platforms also voluntarily provide a certain degree of protection, or benefits such as access to skills training courses.
Grab offers drivers and delivery partners using its platform free group personal accident insurance coverage for accidents that take place while they are on a job, as well as prolonged medical leave coverage for those eligible.
A Foodpanda spokesman said the firm works with partners to ensure all delivery riders have appropriate third party liability insurance. Riders can also get discounted rates for personal insurance plans.
Deliveroo provides riders with free accident and injury insurance.
Gojek provides free prolonged medical leave insurance for more active drivers, while less active ones can buy the coverage at a subsidised monthly rate.
Many gig workers do enjoy the flexibility of being self-employed, as they do not have to adhere to fixed working hours and can take on multiple roles if they wish.
Private-hire car driver Justin Lim, 50, said he likes being able to work at a pace he chooses, and having the flexibility to pursue other interests such as a nine-month Advanced Certificate in Learning and Performance, which he completed a few months ago so that he can be a course facilitator.
But there are other drivers who are sole breadwinners of their families who would be hit hard if things go south, said Mr Lim, a bachelor, who is an executive committee member of the National Private Hire Vehicles Association.
"Platform incentives are unpredictable, and if the platform decides to terminate someone, they can just lock the account without any notice period, and we can't claim for unfair dismissal," he said.
Ms Yeo Wan Ling, a labour MP and director at NTUC, said that longer-term income stability and retirement adequacy for gig workers is still an issue, and they need greater structural support.
"Establishing a good balance between protection and preserving the benefits of freelance work, NTUC will continue to explore ways with stakeholders to strengthen social protection, retirement adequacy, and build earnings resilience of these workers, such as through skills training to help them develop new and alternative income pathways," she said.
Number of Singaporeans and permanent residents who were regularly freelancing over the 12 months to the middle of last year - the highest level in at least five years.
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