SINGAPORE: Freelance netball coach Justin Teh once had to suffer the loss of his income because he was unable to coach during the SARS viral outbreak in 2003. It left him out of work for about two months which amounted to about S$3,000 forgone at the start of his 17-year freelancing career.
“There was a blanket stoppage of co-curricular activities (CCAs) in schools and it was almost my full income because I came out to explore coaching as a career,” he said.
After the incident, Mr Teh asked around for advice to buy an insurance policy to mitigate temporary losses of income but found it impossible.
“If you were to buy as an individual, it’ll cost an arm and a leg. Also, individually it’s very hard to bargain,” Mr Teh said. The same difficulty is also encountered by other freelancers, such as instructors and music educators who work with schools and communities.
To address these woes, NTUC announced that it is planning to set up the National Instructors and Coaches Association (NICA) by the end of the year to support the welfare of coaches and instructors, estimated to be some 5,000 full-time freelancers.
Lye Yen Kai, president of Outdoor Learning and Adventure Education (OLAE) Association, said that there are currently more freelancers than full-time staff in his industry as outdoor programmes are seasonal.
While introducing a prolonged medical leave insurance deal is a “good move”, it would be better with NTUC if it can further subsidise the insurance package for outdoor practitioners as they are not paid as much as sports coaches, he said.
“Some of our freelancers are between 18 and 21 years old, which means this group of freelancers may not even have the financial capacity to pay or even see the need to be part of this group,” Mr Lye said.
“We also hope that the criteria of claiming loss of income will not be a tedious process,” he said.
Apart from the temporary loss of income, freelancers Channel NewsAsia spoke to said they are concerned about friendlier job procurement practices and building the capabilities of the industry.
JOB PROCUREMENT SYSTEM PUTS FREELANCERS AT RISK
Freelance band conductor Adrian Chiang, who has been teaching school bands for 19 years, said that the government job procurement system has made it challenging for freelancers, especially those who work with schools.
Mr Chiang, who is also the president of Band Directors’ Association Singapore (BDAS), said that the industry is completely staffed by freelancers. These include choir instructors, band directors, and Chinese orchestra conductors.
In order to get work with a school, freelancers have to submit a quotation for their services when the Ministry of Education publishes an Invitation to Quote (ITQ) as a service buyer.
The challenging part about this process, Mr Chiang said, is that ITQs are usually released on a yearly basis based on the academic calendar year. Instructors are contracted for a year’s work which runs from January to December but this may be extended to two years.
The bidding period for ITQs typically happen sometime in October, he told Channel NewsAsia. Instructors may bid and lose, and not have the opportunity to bid for other instruction projects at other schools because the bidding period has already closed.
“Many of us are at the brunt of this for many years. Come January if all the jobs are filled up, what am I going to do? If you miss that window, you’re done for the year,” Mr Chiang said.
“CCA instructors are also very important in the development of a child, like a teacher in school. We see them potentially from Secondary One to Secondary Four for four years so it’s hard for us when we have to bid annually for a project,” he said.
Freelance choir conductor Cherie Chai said that with the biennial Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) competition, students may stand to benefit from having the same conductors to practice during the run-up to SYF.
With a change in the conductor, there may not be continuity and consistency for the students, she said.
“To your own conscience, you know that you have been doing your best of your abilities and there is no reason why the school would not want to extend the contract,” Ms Chai said.
"But always that slight fear that someone is going to underbid you significantly enough that you would not be able to extend your contract,” Ms Chai added.
Mr Teh echoed similar sentiments. Sports coaches also have to comply with the same job procurement practices and are asked to submit bids for a year’s work.
“Usually the ITQ will come out … and once it closes, there will be a period of evaluation by the school and the award will come out. All in all, from preparing the ITQ to closing and the awarding can take one to two months. It varies,” Mr Teh said.
“Let’s say if the contract ends in December, perhaps the ITQs can come out in August. When we bid for it and don’t get it and we know by September, we can look for something else,” he added.
To cope with job uncertainty, both Mr Chiang and Mr Teh said that they have seen colleagues who have taken up multiple part-time jobs that offer flexible work arrangements in order to accommodate their primary job as an instructor. Some of these instructors have become real estate agents, insurance agents, and private hire drivers.
Both hope the NICA will be able to negotiate friendlier procurement policies for freelancers by providing multiple bidding periods and introducing firing notice periods.
“In a typical hiring and firing situation, you’ll at least give people a good two to three months’ notice. If you know you’re not going to continue with the instructor, they can go and apply for other jobs,” Mr Chiang said.
RAISING THE PROFILE OF THE WORK
Fitness consultant Kelvin Chua said the association can help provide clearer career pathways and help freelancers with financial planning.
One issue, in particular, is the stagnating wages of freelance fitness coaches because of a lack in recognition of their skills and certifications.
Mr Chua said that even if fitness instructors go in with more than a basic level of knowledge, their income does not commensurate because service buyers are not aware of the qualifications in the market.
“With the association, perhaps we can set the benchmark, standards, and recommendations to say that these instructors with certain qualifications should be paid at a certain rate,” Mr Chua said.
“Then in terms of career planning, you should have a development plan for your career. Even though you’re a freelancer, you should have a career pathway,” Mr Chua added.