Can Singapore forge a unique way to address issues facing gig workers?
By bringing various stakeholders together for an open dialogue, there is an opportunity to come up with solutions that are tailored to the republic's situation.
A decade ago, the term "freelancer" would bring to mind examples such as real estate agents and private tutors. Today, it conjures images of ride-hailing drivers or delivery workers since platform and e-commerce applications have become so prevalent. These drivers and delivery workers are commonly known as gig workers. Alongside the technological progress that has boosted availability and use of these services, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased our reliance on them. Even more traditional companies such as AirAsia are pivoting their business to capitalise on this growing trend.
The ad hoc work that such applications offer appeals to people who want to earn income with flexibility. People whose jobs have been adversely affected by the pandemic have grasped these opportunities to tide them over. Gig workers are facing unique challenges during the pandemic as their income is directly commensurate with the number of assignments they pick up. Ride-hailing drivers saw a plunge in passenger numbers as social distancing restrictions were imposed. Food delivery riders experienced greater competition as the number of riders increased. Recognising these challenges, the Singapore government has lent support to this group through the SEP Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), which provided short-term cash payouts.
The SIRS provided short-term relief, but several long-term challenges remain for gig workers, such as fluctuating income making it difficult to plan for the future and retirement, inadequate protections for illness and injuries occurring on the job, and liability when customers complain, especially when they rely on platform apps for their assignments. Gig workers are subject to the terms and conditions set by the platform with no room for negotiation, establishing an unbalanced relationship.
In Singapore, gig workers fall under the definition of self-employed persons (SEPs). So far, Singapore has taken a measured approach to address the plight of SEPs. The labour law has not been changed to accommodate them, but a Tripartite Standard on Contracting with Self-Employed Persons was introduced. The standard provides a non-binding set of guidelines or best practices for businesses engaging SEPs. The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) also established the National Delivery Champions Association to represent delivery riders and has signalled its intent to do more. A NTUC leader recently suggested in Parliament providing these workers with some level of statutory protection under the Employment Act by changing the law to allow unions to represent them. The question was also raised of whether platform companies should be given disincentives to encourage them to commit to the longer-term social protection of gig workers. But is Singapore doing enough and should it move more quickly to address the underlying issues?
In February, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers must be classified as "workers" and not "self-employed", and be entitled to rights including minimum wage, working time protections, and holiday pay as per UK law. The UK system distinguishes three categories of employment. The first is "employee" in the traditional sense. The second refers to the "self-employed" or people who run their own business. The last category refers to "workers" - people who must accept a company's terms and conditions to start work but they get to decide to work only when they want to. The degree of subordination of Uber drivers was one of the key factors leading the Court to decide that they fall into the category of "workers". Uber has accepted the UK court ruling, and is reclassifying its 70,000 drivers in the UK as "workers", who would get minimum wage, vacation time, and a pension.
My concern with the creation of this third category of employees - which has been introduced in many countries as well as the UK - is the fact that it may not be technology-neutral. It is modelled on the way that platform apps currently operate and manage labour resources. What happens when companies innovate again and revamp their management of resources?
This will require another rethink of labour laws. Moreover, there is a lack of data available to determine whether such a system will benefit gig workers in the long run. At least in the short term, forcing the hands of employers may lead to undesired effects. In Geneva, when Uber Eats couriers were required to be employed as employees and not independent contractors, only 300 out of 1,300 couriers were offered employment contracts. The remaining 1,000 couriers can no longer rely on the Uber Eats platform for work.
Fundamentally, we can all agree that more must be done to ensure that gig workers have adequate protection and that disputes arising between the customer, the platform and the gig worker can be settled fairly. However, we must be careful to avoid doing more harm than good.
From a business point of view, restrictions around employment will inhibit innovation and slow down the ability of new companies to scale. Companies will be more cautious to try out new ideas. It is also important to consider that the more a gig worker is treated as an employee, the less flexibility they will enjoy. If businesses are expected to hire only employees, which come with more obligations, there will naturally be more rigidity on how gig workers spend their hours because businesses will want greater accountability. Moreover, like in the case of Uber Eats in Geneva, businesses may not be able to convert all workers to employees. This means some workers completely lose the opportunity to earn.
Consumer welfare is another area for consideration. As changes impose greater costs on riders or companies, consumers will have to pay more for similar services. The increase in prices could also reduce the demand for such jobs and gig workers will have to grapple with lower earnings. On a related factor, if companies reel back innovation and scaling efforts, consumers would also not be able to benefit from expanded service offerings. As the country continues to deal with the effects of Covid-19 and people still prefer to avoid crowded places and opt for deliveries, we should be cautious of introducing measures that would make it difficult for consumers to make use of delivery platforms.
One of the most important questions is - what do gig workers want? They are in the best position to voice concerns and suggest the measures that might best address their needs. The last thing we want is to develop a framework without checking the realities on the ground.
Singapore's unique tripartite system can help pave the way to a solution that works best for the country, in a manner that may or may not be similar to what other countries have done. By bringing various stakeholders together for an open dialogue, there is an opportunity to come up with solutions that are tailored to Singapore's situation.
- The writer is senior manager, Asia Pacific Policy, at Access Partnership
Source: Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.