The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has had a dramatic effect on many places in Asia. Apart from China, one of the worst-hit countries is Singapore, where a fifth of tourist visits are made up of Chinese nationals. There are now 84 cases of the virus in Singapore, changing everyday life and negatively affecting the economy.
On February 14, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong released a statement warning of the possibility of a recession.
"I can't say whether we will have a recession or not," he said, "It's possible, but our economy will definitely take a hit."
Many industries are suffering losses. Since the outbreak, Singapore has lost up to 20,000 visitors a day, with forecasted total visitor arrivals dropping up to 30 percent this year. This is due to the travel ban placed on Chinese visitors and the wave of tourists cancelling trips to Singapore for fear of contracting the virus.
However, a lesser-known consequence of the coronavirus outbreak is its effect on the creative freelance sector. The rise of Singapore’s ‘gig economy’ due to the growing preference for flexibility (whether with working hours or work locations) and the empowerment that comes with being your own boss sees more people opting to go freelance. Unfortunately, a ship with an entire crew still does better at rough seas than a boat with a single sailor, and being your own boss comes with its own disadvantages.
As a freelancer, it takes time to build your clientele, and not having a company behind you to vouch for your reputation means having to start from the bottom. That, coupled with the lack of employee benefits, retirement packages, and healthcare plans, can be a lot to think about for a fumbling first-timer.
Perhaps the biggest drawback worrying Singapore’s freelancers now is a plain lack of work. With events, gigs, concerts, and public gatherings cancelled or rescheduled amid fears of the coronavirus, freelancers hired by the companies that run the events are left without work. Unfortunately, for those without a monthly salary to draw from, or those without the foresight to insert a cancellation clause in their contract, a lot of them are also left without a paycheck.
Chris Sim, a freelance photographer, has seen his fair share of lull periods, but nothing like the one brought on by the virus scare.
“For most creative freelancers, this dry season straight up became a drought,” he said. “I’ve had previously agreed upon schedules just not honoured. I had to approach the clients myself to ask what’s up, only for them to say something along the lines of ‘Oh yeah, we meant to tell you, oops.’”
With a majority of his upcoming gigs cancelled, Chris is resigned to digging into his savings to get by.
“[It] sucks but it’s not the end of the world. I have savings, plus, the fact that everyone is on alert means I go out less, so I spend less. I don’t think the government has any concrete actions in place, but if you’ve seen the freelancer support group [on Facebook], there are things being worked out.”
He continued, still remaining optimistic: “The good thing is that the majority of the people and companies I work with are all very understanding and are trying to make things work. One of the universities I’m working with had to close because of a confirmed case but my point of contact is working remotely so work still can happen.”
Naturally, a lot of disgruntled freelancers, experiencing the loss of their rice bowls, took to social media to voice their grievances. Nicholas Chee, the executive producer of a video production house, decided to take action after seeing many of his friends affected by event cancellations. He started a Facebook group targeted at creative and cultural freelancers who have lost jobs because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I thought, why don’t I start a Facebook page where people can share their stories and experiences and maybe we could form some sort of a support structure?” Nicholas said.
Their long term plan is to avoid similar fallouts in the future in the form of standardised contracts. To achieve this, Nicholas believes there's a need to come together and self-organise.
With members of the Facebook group expressing interest in starting an association, guild, or union, it’s clear that there is a shared sentiment to come up with a way to better protect freelancers in times of uncertainty. Nicholas believes the group is a key factor in forging more protective contracts, standards, and best practices.
It’s only been a week since the Facebook group was created but it now has 1,200 members. The organic growth makes it abundantly clear that there are many people affected by losses in contract work. With no signs of the coronavirus stopping it’s spread, it’s likely that it will keep growing.
Many freelancers are now looking to the government to help mitigate the loss of work with some support. On February 18, the government released its budget plan for 2020, which includes a series of policies and payouts to boost the economy. Singapore is currently experiencing its weakest economic growth since the 2008 financial crisis, due in part to the trade war between the United States and China, and a slowdown in the global electronics sector.
Some of the actions announced include an additional SG$800 million (US$571 million) set aside to aid the fight against COVID-19 and to curb its spread in Singapore. Another is additional financial support to the five industries directly affected by the outbreak: tourism, aviation, retail, food services, and point-to-point transport service. Noticeably absent is a solution that directly helps freelancers.
Nicholas believes that freelancers, especially those in the arts, should be given just as much priority as the industries included in the budget.
“I think people forget that the tourism sector depends on the arts and cultural sector. If there’s nothing to see people won’t come,” he said. “The cultural and creative sides add volume to the tourism sector. If anything, we are part of the tourism sector. We can’t be discredited because we don’t have the ease of identification.”
Some of the actions from the budget plan are expected to trickle down to freelancers but whether that will be enough still remains a cause of concern for many. So right now, Nicholas, and other creatives like him, continue to worry about their future.
“The freelance industry is unique because the projects we are involved in are usually very visible. But the people behind them? We are very invisible.”
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