The concept of not working in a typical office setting is not a new phenomenon. Concepts such as video conferencing and teleworking have been around since the early 2000s. Several industries, in particular the arts and creative industries, have also operated on a gig or freelance basis for some time.
However, the development of ever-improving communication technologies has facilitated the creation of digital workspaces and platforms. With governments imposing movement controls in a bid to rein in COVID-19 infections, digital workspaces and platforms have become popular with workers globally, accelerating the shift to new working modes like the gig economy, digital worker, and remote working.
Much attention has been given recently to examining the economic and social impact of the gig economy, platforms, and digital workspaces. While many commentaries highlight the benefits of non-traditional employment, others have been more alarmist, as leaders and experts try to grapple with a phenomenon that some neither understand very well nor were fully prepared for. This new mode of working even became a subject during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2021 National Day Rally.
However, often missing in the public conversation is the voice of the growing fleet of gig workers on the frontlines, such as the delivery riders who physically conduct the deliveries. While a recent study carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) does tackle the topic, it focused predominantly on private-hire car drivers rather than exploring delivery riders’ attitudes towards many of the issues currently being hotly debated publicly.
Blackbox community polling regularly scrutinizes sentiment towards the major topics of the day and the platform economy is no exception. With policymakers and academics now weighing in on the pros and cons of the gig economy, we thought it would be useful to survey those on the frontline – the delivery riders – to better understand their own perspectives and how these might help shape the current debate.
With the gig economy becoming ever more prominent amongst policymakers and consumers alike, it is vital that all stakeholder perspectives are given weight to ensure decisions made today are the right ones for the future.
Our study of delivery riders in Singapore reveals a community that, in many respects, seems at odds with the picture sometimes being portrayed in the local and international media.
Delivery riders carry a strong sense of agency and an overwhelming desire for control, which they feel this work can offer them.
Delivery riders are also a varied group. It is neither possible nor sensible to caricature them as simply one thing. While primarily male, the social classification and age of riders appear diversified as do their motivations for taking up this work.
As data from elsewhere in the world has consistently shown, delivery riders in Singapore also enjoy the autonomy and control this work can offer, particularly compared to traditional lower paid jobs in the market—many of which cannot be filled at present.
Furthermore, riders feel that the work offers them more flexibility and financial reassurance, which have been especially vital through the last two years of the pandemic.
However, riders often express disappointment (if not anger) at how their role is typically represented in the public realm. The work can be challenging, requires greater skill than many give it credit for, and is often ridiculed despite its growing importance to the entire community.
Indeed, this misrepresentation is cited by most riders as a much greater challenge than the nature of the work itself. Even though many experts appear more than willing to offer an opinion on what delivery work is like, the truth is very few riders have been asked to share their opinions on how the industry should be structured in the future. But most agree – the experts often get it wrong.
The study also reveals that most riders already enjoy insurance coverage – it is typically offered by all the key platforms and most riders also personally invest in their own accident protection. Both the riders and platforms understand and are aware of the risks.
Furthermore, riders are neither ambivalent nor resigned to any notion of professional stagnation. A majority are keen to upskill, and many are already taking up career development opportunities that are increasingly available in the market. Again, the platforms themselves are also providing riders with opportunities, often out of competitive necessity.
Riders also have much to say about other policy issues being discussed in this area, including Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions and collective representation. While more than half of those we surveyed are already contributing to their CPF Medisave account, most riders are unenthused about contributing to CPF for a variety of reasons. Most feel that any policy or regulatory change that forces them to make compulsory CPF contributions will simply result in a net loss for them personally.
They feel they will lose many of the benefits they now enjoy.
As to the issue of more formal collective representation being introduced, many delivery riders question the need to join a traditional union or are simply uninterested. For starters, it will cost them, they are unsure what the real benefits are and there are channels that already exist for handling issues that are specific to delivery work. Crucially, many of the issues that do arise day to day need to be addressed in real time, and don’t necessarily match with the services typically undertaken by traditional union organisations that are arguably better suited to a pre-digital era.
Overall, our study of delivery riders reveals a more complex and nuanced picture than is sometimes reflected by outside commentators. The findings suggest that the riders themselves deserve to be given a greater voice in how the sector should evolve. The findings also show that riders are neither passive nor ignorant about the issues being debated and their impact. Rider perspectives are both valuable and insightful with respect to changes to the modern working environment that are emerging globally.
We no longer live in a time where it was sufficient for policymakers and experts to simply determine singlehandedly what is best for those they serve. A commitment to consultation along with an appreciation and comprehension of changing work aspirations are requisite in 2022 to ensure the Singapore economy continues to flourish, meets the aspirations of the population, and can renew itself in readiness for the future. The narrative that surrounds the work undertaken by delivery riders is in many ways a window into wider changes happening throughout our society as a result of digitalisation, the pandemic, and shifting social attitudes. As such, we need to be attuned to the decisions we make going ahead.
To read/download the full white paper, click here.
Author: Blackbox Research Team