But with the pandemic, the appeal of gig work has been put to the test. Demand for services such as logistics and delivery have surged under nationwide lockdowns, but other sectors – especially the arts and hospitality – have seen business dry up almost entirely.
That was the case for singer-songwriter Jill-Marie Thomas.
The former national talent show winner quit her marketing job two years ago to pursue performing full-time. But when closures crippled the country’s flourishing entertainment scene, her dreams were almost dashed.
“It was me finally living my dream,” said Thomas. “Putting myself out there without the safety new of having a 9-to-5 job and doing what I really love, and then for it to just come crashing down.”
ilostmygig.sg, one of several sites launched internationally to support creative workers, estimates more than $21 million in income and almost 9,000 gigs have been lost in Singapore as a result of Covid-19.
To help cushion the impact, the government in March introduced a $6,500 pay-out for freelance workers, on top of various household support packages. Cultural agencies have also offered support. In May, the Singapore’s National Arts Council partnered with streaming platform Bigo Live to launch SGLivehouse, a series of virtual gigs to help buskers like Thomas transition to online performances.
“They sent equipment over. We even had a tutorial on how to stream … and what we can do to improve,” Thomas said.
The 38-year-old musician said that has given her the confidence to experiment with different ways of reaching her fans and earning an income via online performances and streaming donations.
“This platform has always been here, this online platform. But with what we’re going through it’s just been an eye-opener,” she said. “I guess it’s given us all an opportunity to look into other areas that we might have overlooked.”
Virtual events are just one way freelancers have digitized to find new business opportunities.
For instance, when lockdowns threatened Singapore’s iconic food markets – known locally as hawker centers – stall owners partnered with government agencies to make money online.
Ming Han Tan is a second-generation hawker seller who helps on his parents’ traditional dried cuttlefish and biscuits stall in the city’s central Chinatown Complex.
The 34-year-old saw business drop as much as 80% due to the outbreak as people opted to stay home, which prompted him to quickly digitize.
“During the Covid, we had to look at new avenues such as doing delivery, advertising and marketing on Facebook, social media platforms, and also using digital payments,” said Tan.
Mirroring those efforts, in June the government launched Hawkers Go Digital, an initiative to help more stallholders adopt technologies such as e-payments. As of August, almost a third (5,400) of Singapore’s 18,000 hawker stalls had adopted digital payments – a figure authorities hope to raise to 100% by June 2021.
Some hawkers are concerned about transaction fees for digital payments kicking in from 2023. But Tan said he thinks the shift will be a “win-win” for customers and stallholders and help the industry weather changes in consumer spending habits.
The scheme aligns with Singapore’s efforts to support its traditional industries and the independent workers within them. Last month, for instance, the Chinatown Complex Hawkers Association and private agency Eat Shop Play launched Hawker Day Out, a series of in-person and virtual tours to encourage more people to return to their local markets.
“We hope to bring more businesses back to this whole entire Chinatown Complex and to keep it alive because it is a sunset industry,” said Tan. “We do not hope that, because of this Covid, it continues to go down.”
Rapid digitization has created a learning curve for many independent workers, but it has also been a boon for some of those who make it their business to help with that transition.
Freelance digital marketer Sandra Tan has been advising individuals and businesses on how to up their online presence for several years after herself being laid off in 2016.