September 07, 2020

Surviving Covid-19: Gig workers in Singapore

Surviving Covid-19: Gig workers in Singapore

The freelance industry in Singapore has grown in recent years and so has the gig economy. According to official figures, last year Singapore had 211,000 independent workers (9%), up from 200,000 in 2016. Of that number, more than 80% did freelance work as their primary occupation. This increase has been driven partly by the popularity and rise of platforms such as Fiverr and Upwork which have enabled alternative and well-paid ways of working.

Paul Oyer, IZA World of Labor author, writes that during slack economic periods, non-traditional work also serves as an alternative safety net. “[Platforms such as] TaskRabbit, Upwork, and Fivver introduce buyers and sellers of labor (rather than assigning them). Someone who wants to have their furniture assembled, translation done, or needs computer programming will be presented with many possible providers of the relevant service. Even if the buyer was willing to just take the first seller presented, that person may not be available at the right time or willing to do the work. So there is a non-trivial matching and vetting process where buyers and sellers of labor negotiate the task to be done, the timing, the price, and other details.”

Nevertheless, Covid-19 has tested gig work. While demand for services including logistics and delivery surged, other sectors, such as arts and hospitality, have suffered immensely. IZA World of Labor contributors Seonghoon Kim, Kanghyock Koh, and Xuan Zhang used individual-level monthly panel data covering Singapore before and during the pandemic to document the considerable economic consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country. They found that “most workers worked fewer hours or took pay cuts rather than becoming unemployed [… but] the probability of employment or self-employment was minimally affected, likely due to Singapore’s massive wage subsidy program that provided up to 75% of gross wages to each employee.”

In March the government implemented a $6,500 pay-out for freelance workers in addition to other household support packages. Nevertheless, according figures from one of several sites launched internationally to help support creative workers,, more than $21 million in income and almost 9,000 gigs were lost in Singapore alone due to the pandemic. Singapore’s National Arts Council also partnered with streaming platform Bigo Live to launch SGLivehouse, which was a series of virtual gigs to help musicians transition to online performances.

Virtual events have been just one way freelancers have adapted to Covid-19. When the lockdown in Singapore posed a threat to the country’s iconic food markets, stall owners partnered with government agencies to make money online. Ming Han Tan, food stall operator, selling traditional dried cuttlefish and biscuits in the centre of the city, saw his business drop by 80% as people chose to stay home. This change prompted him to digitize as quickly as possible. The ability to shift mindsets and prepare for a more unpredictable future will help freelancers to flourish, Tan commented.

Read Paul Oyer’s article The gig economy and Seonghoon Kim, Kanghyock Koh and Xuan Zhang’s opinion piece Effects of Covid-19 on spending and saving.