THE labour movement is pushing for freelancers to be given more protection against unfair or shoddy treatment by their clients.

And industry groups which the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has been working with suggest that these changes could be made during the review of the Employment Act this year.

Unlike contract employees, who enjoy legal protection under the Employment Act, freelancers are not covered by labour laws.

They are, however, covered under contract law, but this means they have to seek redress through costly civil suits or the Small Claims Tribunal.

There were 176,900 'own account workers' here last year, up from 121,816 in 2000, according to government figures. These workers, who are self-employed and do not employ others, include freelancers and others such as taxi drivers.

More firms are seeking freelancers for the flexibility they offer, said Ms Linda Teo, country manager at recruitment firm Manpower Singapore. Outsourcing also lets them cut staffing and rental costs, she added.

'In a way, freelancers are at the mercy of clients,' said Mr Patrick Tay, NTUC director of legal services and professionals, managers and executives.

'It would help if we could increase their protection.'

Freelancers do not receive payments to Central Provident Fund accounts, nor medical benefits. If injured on the job, they cannot seek compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act.

'Internationally, freelancers are not covered by labour legislation so it's a very tricky situation,' said Mr Tay. 'But maybe we can see whether there's any possibility of providing some basic assistance to this group.'

Since late last year, NTUC has been meeting freelancers to understand their concerns.

The top grouse: clients who take a long time to pay. Mr Tay said freelancers may feel they have too little bargaining power to insist on prompt payment or a good price for their work.

Said freelance tour guide Jeanne Yeo, who is in her 50s: 'If we protest, or we ask for higher pay, we end up being sidelined and we don't get the jobs.'

The labour movement cannot formally bargain with firms to pay freelancers more. But late or inadequate payment is one issue it will raise as an advocate for freelancers through its tripartite links with firms and the Government.

Tour guides and adult educators even have their own chapters in the Attractions, Resorts & Entertainment Union (AREU) and Education Services Union respectively. Both were set up last year. There are more than 300 freelance tour guides in the AREU chapter.

While the onus remains on clients to give freelancers a better deal, NTUC is equipping freelancers to fight for their rights.

On Tuesday, it held its first event for them: a talk on legal rights in areas such as payment and intellectual property. The event, attended by about 350 people, was held in response to freelancers' suggestions.

Freelancers said advice and education efforts are welcome.

Graphic designer Jacqueline Chen, 23, said she was 'quite confused' when it came to billing clients for work.

Freelancers who join NTUC can get help from the upcoming Workplace Advisory Service. NTUC is also dangling carrots, from training to benefits such as the U-Tap training grant.

Mr Tay said the labour movement will speak up for freelancers regardless of membership, which costs $117 a year. 'But if you want union benefits, then you have to be a member.'