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Southeast Asia's Gig Economy Has a Long Way to Go in Terms of Supporting Its Freelancers


The 'gig economy' is a term we’ve heard quite often in 2020. It has been a growing economic sphere in recent years, especially in Southeast Asia. This is evidenced by the sheer number of people who now define themselves as 'self-employed' or 'freelancer.'

Freelance platforms like Elance which sprung to life in 1999 or oDesk in 2003 can be credited with introducing flexible working. It was, however, the financial crisis of 2007-2009 that made it a definitive alternative in the global marketplace. Its growth since then is what led to it being considered an alternative 'economy.'


What Drove the Gig Economy Forward? 

This gig economy, which gained dominance in Southeast Asia, was driven forward by a variety of factors. The global financial crisis of 2007-2009 was one of them, resulting in large-scale layoffs. With several companies unable to support their employees, people turned to freelancers.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, organisations wanted to significantly reduce their expenditure. Benefits such as health and retirement covers were seen as expenses that could be done away with, and the only way to do this was by altering their workforce.

Companies, whenever possible, aimed to fill their vacancies with freelancers rather than full-time workers, exempting them from having to provide additional benefits. ASEAN Today predicted that by 2020, 25% of all businesses would have at least 30% of their workforce engaged in a freelance capacity. 


Not only is the gig economy a financially viable option for businesses, but it also offers freelancers increased flexibility, multiple sources of revenue, and a better work-life balance. But with the COVID-19 pandemic throwing light on its grave downsides, freelancing is far from a perfect alternative.


The Struggles of Freelancing 

One of the major hang-ups of working as a freelancer in the gig economy is the lack of job stability. Since freelancers are not full-time workers, they never know when they'd find themselves out of work. Their earnings are dependent on individual gigs. 

Additionally, freelancers do not receive medical and retirement covers, meaning that they are forced to invest in these policies themselves. What makes the situation worse are freelance platforms in the market that continue to raise the charges they levy, knowing fully well that people cannot walk away from them. 

The city-state of Singapore, just like its neighbours Indonesia and the Philippines, has a large number of people who rely on and belong to the gig economy. Despite forming the backbone of various industries that continue to be increasingly dependent on freelancers, they enjoy no safety net.


Turning to the Government

Governments too have found it challenging to cater to the economic needs of freelancers amid the outbreak. 

What makes the situation intricately difficult to deal with is the fact that the needs of gig workers are different; a taxi driver working for Grab won't have the same concerns as a self-employed graphic designer. 

With Southeast Asia emerging as a larger market for freelancers, governments are reluctant to bring in regulations that could stymie the reputation of the region as a startup hub. However, this shouldn't cost freelancers their bread and butter. 


If governments want to continue to benefit from the gig economy, they must bring in policies and regulations that provide them with adequate medical and financial cover. The opportunity presented by the COVID-19 outbreak must be seized to ensure that freelancers do not lose out on the benefits received by their counterparts in the formal sector. 

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