Grab Conversation: Gig Economy in Southeast Asia

Informal work or casual ‘gigs’ are not new to our societies. Freelance workers have long existed in industries like agriculture, construction, manufacturing, music and the arts. The emergence of the gig economy though is a more recent phenomenon. This trend has been accelerated by rapid digitalisation, and enabled by platform companies like Grab, that create marketplaces at scale.

While the gig economy has become a lifeline for many in Southeast Asia, it is not without its share of concerns. A February 2021 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) identifies four groups of issues: inequality and digital divide; gig workers’ rights and voices; data and privacy issues; and competitive / antitrust issues.

Grab partnered with the ILO on this event to kickstart a conversation on the gig economy. Representatives of the ILO, Grab, governments and investors examined the Southeast Asian perspective on the gig economy and identified some of the more pressing issues for the region to tackle.

ILO’s research on the role of digital platforms

In a fireside chat, Uma Rani, ILO Senior Economist highlighted how digital platforms are changing the nature of work. She discussed the challenges faced by workers, based on the report by ILO, with Ilaria Chan, Group Advisor to Grab.

Uma Rani, Senior Economist, Research Department, ILO

  • “It calls for a global social dialogue and regulatory cooperation between digital labour platform companies, the platform workers and governments. Fundamentally, what it goes about arguing is that irrespective of how the worker is defined, what the employment status is, the universal application of all the labor standards and fundamental principles and rights at work to all workers would be very important.”

Gig economy in Southeast Asia’s context

The first panel discussion of the session brought together different players in the platform ecosystem to explore how the gig economy has evolved in Southeast Asia, and the challenges and opportunities it has created for the region. 

Pandu Sjahrir, Managing Partner, Indies Capital; Chairman, SEA Indonesia

  • “Technology allows people to go from idle time to productive time. If they’re able to do that, you can have more economic output. And if you can have more economic output, hopefully, you can have more opportunities. And technology allows everyday people to have that ability.”
  • “Technology can actually expand the overall economic system. You’ll get people to be registered as taxpayers; you’ll get people to be part of the credit cycle. Why? Because a lot of the FinTech movement now is creating the ability to provide credit to small medium enterprises, and to grow the business. And finally, I would say, we should increase productivity among the SMEs, because I think the biggest engine of progress in Asia today will be the SMEs.”

Trevor Sworn, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Enduring Education Consultancy; Board Member, Cambodian Federation of Employers 

  • “[In Cambodia], we have a very young country, 50% under the age of 26 years old; and many young people coming of school age, and more than 25% haven’t completed high school. So we have a big challenge here with a workforce coming through who have low skills.”
  • “We see that the opportunities that the gig working platform economy provides is a low skill and low cost [of] entry into the market. With a smartphone and a three-wheeler tuktuk, they can enter the market and they can start earning money. And many young people are the breadwinners in their family.”

Adrian Tan, Strategist, Future of Work, Institute of Human Resource Professionals, Singapore

  • “The way I look at it and having previously been a [gig] worker myself… We just want: first, livelihood; two, flexibility of time. If we indeed want to have all these benefits and all that, we will not even consider gig work to begin with.”

Lim Yew Heng, Group Managing Director, Public Affairs, Grab

  • “How do we design fair conditions that are grounded on what’s really happening, right? If you take what might make sense in Europe and try to put it in Southeast Asia, maybe it doesn’t make sense.”

Identifying shared outcomes

The second and final session of the event looked at the role of the public sector in shaping the future of the gig economy, and the need for regulation in the sector. It brought together speakers from the public and private sectors, moderated by ILO.

Sara Elder, Senior Economist, ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

  • “The ultimate aim is to create some sort of equilibrium on how the supply and the demand of labour meets in a framework of digital platforms, and fixing this in a way that the rules and regulations can catch up and hopefully propel platform work in a way that maximises the wellbeing of society on all fronts.” 

Professor Tan Sri Noor Azlan Ghazali, Executive Director, Secretariat of the National Economic Council, Malaysia

  • “Government must accept the fact that this [the gig economy] is going to stay; whether you like it or not, it is going to be there.”
  • “What we are worried about [in Malaysia] is if we work in isolation. If there’s not enough engagement with the providers, with the players, we might end up stalling progress. So my perspective is that we need to sit down together; there should be a common, open discussion and understand how things work and to be fair to all.”

Lim Yew Heng, Group Managing Director, Public Affairs, Grab

  • “Part of the responsibility of platforms is to better explain what gig work is to governments, so that they understand the detail and richness of the process, for appropriate regulation [to be developed].” 
  • “Governments need to partner with platforms, unions, worker representatives, to innovate and learn in an agile way, so we can pivot and find the best way forward.”

Komsan Chiyadis

GrabFood delivery-partner, Thailand

Komsan Chiyadis

GrabFood delivery-partner, Thailand

COVID-19 has dealt an unprecedented blow to the tourism industry, affecting the livelihoods of millions of workers. One of them was Komsan, an assistant chef in a luxury hotel based in the Srinakarin area.

As the number of tourists at the hotel plunged, he decided to sign up as a GrabFood delivery-partner to earn an alternative income. Soon after, the hotel ceased operations.

Komsan has viewed this change through an optimistic lens, calling it the perfect opportunity for him to embark on a fresh journey after his previous job. Aside from GrabFood deliveries, he now also picks up GrabExpress jobs. It can get tiring, having to shuttle between different locations, but Komsan finds it exciting. And mostly, he’s glad to get his income back on track.