SINGAPORE: I recall feeling something was amiss when I drove for Uber. This was back in 2016.
Initially, I couldn’t pin down what that was. A few days in, I realised that something was work stress.
Since no work could be carried forward as a private hire driver, I didn’t think about work after switching off my driving app.
There was no company’s P&L to worry about over the weekend, no dreaded performance conversations to have next week and most importantly, no pointless meetings that achieved little.
Having been extremely stressed out over a past business venture, that lack of work stress was most welcoming. With no hamster wheel to keep running on, I could actually stop and smell the roses.
That was my first taste of independence and freedom as a gig economy worker, something that I reminiscence about quite fondly.
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The New Yorker calls the gig economy the “on-demand, peer, or platform economy.”
In simpler terms, the gig economy consists of companies who engaged contract workers for a temporary period or project-based jobs, instead of hiring them for permanent positions.
There are many reasons why people choose to freelance instead of settling down into a “proper” full-time job.
For Darryl*, it was pure mathematics.
I met Darryl a few times when he dropped by the outplacement centre I was managing. A career technician retrenched half a year ago, we were extremely confident he could be placed in a full-time role easily.
He was only in his mid-30s. He was drawing a reasonable, competitive salary.
Yet, three months in, we could barely get him to attend any interviews. All the companies who were interested were ready to pay him around $2,500 per month, the market rate for a technician of his level of experience.
However, he started driving for Grab around the same time he was referred to us.
With a house and a small family to support, it was an easy decision for him to continue driving for a take-home pay of $4,000 in a slow month (this was back in 2017) instead of returning to formal employment.
PLATFORM GIGS HELP PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
Then there’s also the gig worker who might have few other options I’ve seen around my neighbourhood - the physically disabled deliverer who nonetheless press on to do their deliveries on electric wheelchairs.
Such deliverers reminded me of the story of Roszana Ali who struggled to find a job for seven years since graduating from school.
Being in a wheelchair and suffering from cerebral palsy, she faced rejection after rejection because she was “very slow” and potential hiring managers found her hard to understand.
Even though she demonstrated grit in taking up courses to hone her abilities in basic Internet skills, digital imaging and word processing, the odds were stacked against her.
She was rejected after six job interviews over four years. She was resigned to surviving on government handouts.
Fortunately, GrabFood came along. At the encouragement of her friend, she leapt at the chance to become a delivery rider.
Eight months later and more than 600 deliveries later, she is enjoying her first real taste of independence as a GrabFood rider.
For Roszana, obtaining formal employment was impossible despite how hard she tried. For her, the gig economy looked past her handicap and gamely took her on.
The experience has given her not just self-confidence, but also self-sufficiency and hope for the future.
FLEXIBILITY TO JUGGLE WORK AND FAMILY
Beyond more money, work stress and just pure opportunity, participating in the gig economy may be a better way to prioritise your familial life.
That was what drove the husband of Medium contributor Anna Molly to become a Grab driver in 2015.
She revealed how this was a calculated move as they had to commute every morning from Punggol to drop their kids off with the grandparents in Woodlands.
The to-and-fro journey took more than two hours each day. Anna’s husband was also stuck in a dead-end job where he was underpaid and felt underappreciated.
So at 30, he took the plunge and became a private hire driver. That allowed him to send their two daughters every morning to his parents’ before turning on his driver app.
Others who may need the flexibility to care for elderly parents, family members with special needs too would find gig work more appealing.
Greater income security when your employer provides CPF contributions and stronger retirement adequacy may be big benefits that come with a full-time job. But for a gig worker, cash flow matters more. Plus the perks count more than the dollars and cents earned.
When I was driving for Uber, I too made use of the flexibility to fetch my kids from their primary school and preschool every weekday. Often I would send them straight back home but occasionally we would hang out at the deserted playground or go for lunch together.
Those seemingly mundane moments are the few precious memories I look back upon most affectionately. They laid the foundations for the strong bonds we share today as a family.
When family priorities conflict with a full-time job, it is a no-brainer to lean towards the former.
As former actor Michael J Fox puts it: “Family is not an important thing. It's everything.”
These are just some examples of why people may pick the gig economy over formal employment, dispelling the position articulated by some economists that many gig economy workers are displaced workers and would want to return to formal employment if they had a choice.
With exception to Roszana, every one of these examples have the option to continue with formal employment.
But at what cost?
READ: Commentary: Putting in 50 hours while WFH, it’s a struggle to draw the line between work and home
STRONGER SAFEGUARDS FOR GIG WORKERS
The good news is gig economy workers have stronger protections. They are now recognised as self-employed persons (SEPs) by the Ministry of Manpower and can get support from the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management on payment-related disputes.
There is also the Tripartite Standard on Contracting with SEPs (TS SEPs) to promote fair contracting norms and there are now insurance products to protect SEPs from loss of income during periods of prolonged illness.
A contribute-as-you-earn scheme has been piloted to help SEPs better save for their healthcare needs through smaller, more regular MediSave contributions.
Furthermore, lower-income SEPs can qualify for Workfare Income Supplement (WIS). They can also tap on the Workfare Training Support scheme to apply for training allowance and upskill themselves.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng even set aside S$133 million for the COVID-19 Driver Relief Fund as part of Budget 2021 for this group.
My Private Hire Car Driver's Vocational License (PDVL) is expiring soon and I intend to renew it. I see it as my get-out-of-the-rat-race card when my kids eventually outgrow the need for my financial support.
When that happens, I may opt for a slower, serene lifestyle that formal employment can never provide.
It may not allow me to build up my nest egg to retire in the traditional sense but being able to escape all that corporate nonsense, unnecessary overtime and weekend slack messages is enough for me to seriously contemplate returning to the gig economy at some point.
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Adrian Tan is Practice Leader - Work Tech at PeopleStrong after spending a decade in recruitment and outplacement. He writes regularly on the Future of Work.