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'It always helps when you know you are not alone': Freelancers rally online after taking hit from COVID-19 outbreak

SINGAPORE: With the exception of a gig in April, lighting designer Jim Chan's work calendar is now completely blank as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Ever since the Chinese New Year period, a lot of things have been cancelled," he told CNA. "Around that period, I started looking for other things to do. But I realised some people still wanted to carry on their shows, so I didn't commit to any other job because I still had to do these shows. 

"Then when the Government announced that there would be a ban on events over 250 (people), everything got cancelled. That was just last week, so now I have to rethink (my plans) again."

While Mr Chan also had another role editing sports broadcast content, opportunities have also dried up as sports events have been largely postponed or cancelled.

"The main thing is the uncertainty - when this will end. I feel like if it ended in a month, I'd be fine, I'd be prepared enough and keep my finances in order," said Mr Chan, who estimates he has lost about S$4,000 in earnings. 

"But if this goes on for six months, then I will be in some trouble, I need to find something (else) to do." 

With the COVID-19 outbreak impacting many freelancers such as Mr Chan, a Facebook group for freelancers in the arts and culture and creative sectors has ben set up.

Mr Chan has helped with the lighting for performances at festivals such as Textures 2020. (Photo: The Arts House at The Old Parliament Facebook page)

The group, which has over 3,800 members, aims to rally these individuals, allow them to share job postings, and collect feedback which then can be shared with various stakeholders.

The idea is also raise the profile of a sector which is often overlooked, said Mr Nicholas Chee, who created the group last month.

"What we've done is essentially to come together and say, look, there's a whole group of freelance professionals, self employed persons that are in this industry in these various sectors," he said. "And a lot of them have have been affected by COVID-19 just like any other industry, because it's always (been talk) about tourism, hotels, things that you can see."

Mr Chee, who works in the media sector, estimates that the COVID-19 outbreak has cost him upwards of S$50,000.

"I think the most important thing is that this is the very first time ... that this sort of self organisation is happening," he added. "I would say that if the group didn't exist, then everybody would just be venting on (their) home page. 

"But what the group does is actually to give everybody a sense of emotional and mental support as well, to know that I'm not the only one in this terrible state ... When you have support from people around which are in the same in the same state, there's a lot of encouragement going on. And there's a lot of positive things going on and people are trying to make things happen in spite of the situation."

"I've found some interesting things that I didn't know about," he said. "You get to read stories about how different people are handling it, how different people are coping with it - whether they try something new, or take their business online."

Actress and writer Jo Tan is another freelancer who has been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. She has seen productions, as well as hosting gigs cancelled, resulting in losses of around S$15,000.

"I might be writing a script and then at the next moment, nobody is going to see it, I could be rehearsing and developing a piece of work and nobody might be able to see that, I might not get paid as well," she said. 

"I'm always fully aware that it might amount to nothing."

And while she tides over this difficult period, the Facebook group has been a help, whether it be providing support or starting projects that eventually can be monetised.

"It always helps when you know that you are not alone. And you can just rant. I do feel that there is solidarity," she explained. "When you are the lone freelancer, it can feel like it's you against the world. But when you have a community then you know you have these people to back you up."

Earlier this month, the Government unveiled measures to help freelancers affected by the coronavirus outbreak. These include an allowance of S$7.50 an hour for self-employed persons when they attend courses under the SkillsFuture Series over the next three months.

There is no cap to how much training self-employed persons can sign up for under the scheme, which will be administered by NTUC. 

READ: Enhanced training assistance for low-wage, self-employed people to improve career prospects

But freelancers say more can be done.

"I'm grateful for the SkillsFuture credits and the training allowance, but I also think there are some flaws," said Ms Tan, who pointed out that some courses are expensive.

"Everybody has no income now and needs to spend their training credits wisely. And we certainly can't afford to top up any deficiency in the credits with cash," she explained.

"Also, there is a training allowance for certain SkillsFuture courses which is great, but the current courses available for the allowance are really extremely limited and are in areas that would be a massive leap for many people to jump into. 

"Like looking at these subjects, even if I went for like a full course, I'm still so distant from most of them that I would be far from qualified to work in that industry."

More resources needs to be allocated to support the arts industry, added Ms Tan.

"For the arts industry in Singapore, It's been such a long slow journey to get to where are are today, where people from different parts of the world know of and respect our work," she explained. "But if we don't have the resources to get through this period, we may have to start from zero again."

In conjunction with the Facebook group, the website was launched on Monday (Mar 23). Inspired by similar efforts in the US and Australia, the website collates information on the losses suffered by those within such industries and hopes to give a sense of the scale of income lost.

Ms Jo Tan performing in a production. (Photo: William Low)

As of 6.33pm on Tuesday (Mar 24), the tally of lost income on the website stands at about S$18 million.

"Now their losses are not invisible, there's a tangible number put to it," explained Mr Keith Tan, who was part of the team that helped to spearhead the website. "It's real people submitting their numbers."

Users who enter the site can make use of a form to provide information, and moderators help to collate this information and form an overall tally. Checks are also done, to make sure that the numbers declared are in line with what is reasonable.

"When you engage with the Government, trade organisations, you can't just go to them and say: 'We're hurting and we're bleeding.' They will say: 'How much?'," said Mr Tan. 

"Nick has already gone through several town hall meetings and conversations with the Government and trade organisations. So I think in the next dialogue, we have some data to bring to them," said Mr Tan. "This is not a crowdfunding campaign - there's no intent to fulfil the tally, but it's to make aware that this is a real thing and this is the gross losses on the table. Now how do we tide this industry over till times are good again?"

There are also various tabs for easy access to resources and the latest news. The website provides an "I want to help" tab, which is aimed at connecting external parties with freelancers in order to provide possible job opportunities.

"There are people who want to get involved and want to help. But the thing is that they don't know how to get involved," said Mr Tan. "It's very important for people who want to help to have a channel to voice out how to want to do so, so that we can direct them to the relevant parties."

Additional reporting by Cindy Co.

Source: CNA/mt


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