Over the past two weeks, there have been multiple discussions about how Singapore businesses could struggle badly because of the latest safety measures put in place during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert). We wrote about this topic last week where we shared some reasons why we think Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) could be worse than Circuit Breaker for many Singapore businesses.
On 22 May 2021, CNA also published a commentary piece on why brick-and-mortar retail stores have been one of the worst-hit sectors, and suggested that these businesses would be better off enduring a Circuit Breaker (with government financial support), rather than being stuck in the current situation they are in.
While there are no doubts that businesses in the F&B, retail and fitness are among some of the hardest-hit sectors along with tourism and hospitality, these businesses are not the only groups that are badly impacted. Self-employed persons such as freelancers, private-hire drivers and private educators will likely see their employment income impacted heavily again in 2021.
In 2020, the government introduced the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), which provides a cash payout of $1,000 per month, for a total of nine months. According to government-released information last year, about 190,000 individuals in Singapore qualified to receive this payout.
Examples of self-employed persons as shared by IRAS include:
- Commission agent (e.g. insurance agent, real estate agent)
- Direct seller
- Freelancer (e.g. you receive fees for providing services as a delivery rider, consultant, book keeper, graphic designer)
- Hawker (you are the owner of a hawker business or a food stall)
- Owner of a business that buys and sells goods and/ or services
- Owner of an online business (i.e. you buy and sell goods or provide services through the Internet)
- Owner of your own practice (e.g. accountant, architect, doctor, lawyer)
- Taxi driver / Private-hire car driver
- Private tuition teacher (you look for your own students by yourself or through agencies and do not receive a salary from a tuition centre)
It’s easy to see how some of the above occupations are going to be badly impacted during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert. If you are a freelance baby-sitter, private tutor, private hire driver or fitness instructor, the next few months are going to be exceptionally difficult. Even if you are willing to take the risk to step out of the home to (try) earn an income for your family, it’s hard to imagine parents wanting extra tuition lessons during this period or needing paid baby-sitting help at home. Other occupations such as insurance agents, wedding and event organisers and freelance video producers will likely suffer again from the decline in work.
SIRS Support Last Year Was Useful. This Year, No Such Support Has Been Announced
Some people may feel that the SIRS support last year was overly generous. To some extent, I agree. It didn’t make sense that some self-employed individuals were getting SIRS payouts that were higher than what they would typically make from working in a normal year. The SIRS payouts should have been given as a way to soften the loss of income and not to increase the income of some of the self-employed persons.
You may have heard stories from family members and friends of people receiving the generous $1,000 a month payout for nine months, in spite of previously barely working part-time as a self-employed person.
The reason for that is simple. The criteria to receive the SIRS payout last year were relatively simple.
- Started work as an SEP on or before 25 March 2020
- Earn a Net Trade Income of no more than $100,000
- Do not earn an income of more than $2,300 as an employee
- Live in a property with an annual value of up to $21,000
- Do not own two or more properties
In other words, even if you were just working sporadically (e.g. once a year) to provide manpower support for ad-hoc events, you would still receive the payout as long as you declare a positive SEP income to IRAS (a big if by the way), even if the SIRS payout exceeds what you typically make anyway working as a casual part-timer in a normal year.
This isn’t to say that SIRS was bad. In fact, for many self-employed individuals, the SIRS payout would have helped them significantly in what was a horrible year.
In 2021 thus far, a watered-down version – the COVID-19 Recovery Grant (CRG) – provide self-employed persons a much lower level of support of up to $500 a month for three months, from January 2021. Self-employed persons in the sports industry can also tap on the Sports Resilience Package to tide through the latest tightening measures.
No new all-encompassing schemes for self-employed persons have been announced despite the broad tightening of safe management measures. One of the reasons for this could be that we are not (officially at least) in Circuit Breaker. Just like how most companies are not getting any extended JSS support because they are still allowed to operate, self-employed persons can continue to work if they want to. However, the problem is whether they can get any job in the first place.
For those of us who work for a company, our job security is tied to the company we work for. Even if business is bad, we still get paid unless the company folds. While there is no guarantee we can hold on to our job in 2021, we do have an additional layer of job security because of our company.
For self-employed individuals, no job security exists. If they don’t get enough jobs over the next few months, they don’t get paid and will need to dip into their savings to continue paying for their family’s living expenses. For self-employed persons who are the sole breadwinner of their family, this would be a very hard time for them. In addition, they also need to cope with the same problems all of us have (e.g. having to stay at home, home-based learning, the fear of getting COVID-19, etc).
The May 2021 Situation Could Be Much Worse Than April 2020 For Self-Employed Individuals
If April 2020 was the first half of a football game, we could say that May 2021 is the second half. And there is no guarantee that our second half is going to be better than the first. Yes, we may have more information on how the COVID-19 virus transmits and there are approved vaccinations. However, the sheer number of COVID-19 cases in India shows us just how bad the COVID situation can turn out in any country within a matter of weeks. In fact, India currently has more cases reported each day (more than 200,000 per day) than the total number of cases that were recorded in China (about 90,000).
Just a month ago, Singapore was on the road to recovery. Now, we are in a partial lockdown that appears eerily similar to what we experienced a year ago. There is a sense of déjà vu and one which we think may bode very badly for many self-employed persons within our society.
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