On taking an exploitative employer up to task
Art worker, 19 June 2021
This is a two-part interview. You can access the second part of this interview, On identity and barriers in the arts, here.

— What are you currently busy with at the moment?
— Maybe I can share about how I got to where I am today. I graduated about two years ago from LASALLE Arts Management, after which I worked for an art gallery for a year. Things went south with the gallery job and I got laid off, unfairly dismissed during COVID. I went through a legal process of taking them up to task on it. So, because of the fact that I was dismissed in a time where it was very difficult to look for a job in the art and culture industry, because of the COVID situation, I struggled to find a job. And I gave up because it was very exhausting to constantly be rejected.

I was sort of forced to work precariously, freelancing. So I was doing a lot of different jobs. And they ranged from doing art handling, doing copy-editing work, admin for webinars, for example. Surprisingly, I've managed to survive for about a year up until this point. Right now, I'm still unemployed and don't have gigs lined up. I've been very anxious about what to do next. And financially, I've been able to somehow finance my way through it, doing stuff like applying for an extra line on the telecom and then selling the phone. Hopefully, a project that's supposed to happen with a curator is confirmed soon, then I'll be able to have more security, because that project spans a year. From there, I’ll try to decide what I want to do next, because I think the timing is just nice when hopefully, things get better. So yeah, that's where I am at now.

—When you were studying, were you expecting to get a stable wage job or were you thinking that your life would be structured around freelance work?
—I was hoping to have a stable job, because I don't come from a... I wouldn't say I'm impoverished but I don't come from a good family background with regards to socio-economic class. So a stable job was something that I really wanted because I needed to pay for a lot of stuff for me and my mom. I wanted to move out from living paycheck to paycheck. And at least begin the process where you can start saving up. 

Although it gives autonomy to your relationship with labor, I definitely understand that for my own mental space, at this point of time, freelance temping wasn't something that I wanted to do because I will get very anxious because I don't have family as a safety net financially. My mom works as a cleaner, so she doesn't get paid a lot. Somehow I was forced to work freelance because of the whole COVID situation. I mean, even before COVID, it was also very hard to find a job. I remember getting out of school, I applied for about at least 150 openings. And I only got three calls and two interviews, one of which I ended up with. Yeah, that's my relationship with doing freelance work.
—Do you think your experience is normal compared to your classmates?
—I think precarity and the whole relationship with precarious work differs a lot for different people. And if I were to think about the art and cultural industry, in general, I wouldn't say my experience with regards to getting a job is a common sentiment. A lot of my friends and my classmates do land jobs in the main institutions, like the National Gallery and all that. But yeah, I suppose that's the minority of them, like maybe 30% of the cohort. And the rest end up either switching industries or doing something quite aligned, but not necessarily art and culture, like going into tech.

—I'm just wondering what happened at the gallery?
— So essentially, what happened was that the gallery misrepresented the position. The position that I applied for was the gallery manager position, which is to say that I would have a team to work with. But when I came in, it was a horrible place to work in. I was the only person working there and did everything for the gallery even outside of my job scope. For a year, I tolerated that, because I had no other options. So I just tolerated that lah, but you know, it was very exploitative to expect one single person to take on a few roles. It came to a point where I couldn't I couldn't deal with it anymore.
After which, I followed up with MOM and made a case out of it. It’s an avenue for recourse. Also, it wasn't great because at the end of the day, I won the case but there wasn't much remuneration at all for the loss of income that I suffered. I got back, like $600 of remuneration? The whole process was a few months of going through a lot of legal work. The thing with tripartite as a recourse avenue is that you cannot have legal representation, so I had to do everything myself, like file statements. It was just a lot of mental labor, knowing that the other party has a legal team and all that. It was a whole David and Goliath situation and you had to represent yourself in front of a judge.
The silver lining was that this great experience allowed me to know what the channels for recourse are, when an employer treats you badly. The strange thing is that actually, how I got to know about this avenue was from my brother. He got sued for ending his contract at his job, and his employers went to hear against him. I was trying to help him out. I think it's great that I had that information and I was slightly familiar with the process of how one can go about taking to task employers who work and operate in exploitative ways. I can share the process with my friends or help out if anyone is undergoing that.
— I was just thinking that actually quite a lot of galleries in Singapore work along the same lines of what you spoke about earlier, even if you didn't mention the name of the gallery, I wouldn't know which one you were referring to. I know of friends who have...
—…gone through something similar…
—.... gone through something similar in a sense that there were one or two people who were employed by the gallery but they ran everything from the beginning to the end. They even did gallery sitting.
—What really motivated me was the fact that my supervisor was a nasty person and I think it's not fair for the world to be run this way, for people to get away with this and the fact that actually, the gallery founder has actually done this before to someone else and had shared stories with me about how they fired people for no basis...
—And so she's boasting about it?
—Yeah, it turned out bad for them for having shared all these because then I know I have knowledge and I use that in my statement against her. And actually she had done something similar to someone I know from the industry, where she refused to pay the person, even though the person gave prior notice for quitting the job, and gave a hard time for the person for that, refusing to pay whatever was owed to the person. The person also had to go to MOM for a claim. The boss shared with me this on a few occasions which I found very disturbing.
Why the hell are you sharing this with me? During the meeting when things ended very badly, I was recording and they mentioned that again as a veiled threat and you know, if I put out a case against them, that I’ll be under a process of review by them as an employer. Insinuating that I might jeopardize myself? I don't think that it should be normalized, the exploitative treatment of workers, expecting them to undertake multiple roles for one salary. I was quite upset since the gallery actually has the money to pay for art handlers but doesn't want to pay for art handlers, but rather expects me, the staff to hang work. I find it very troubling that I hear from other friends that it's quite normal.
—There seems to be no labor standards in the arts, like visual arts.
— The creative sphere falls under that trap, where there's no strict delineation of work. Something like graphic design is expected of an executive staff, which shouldn't be the case, just because the person has the knowledge and skills. Usually it's two separate payrolls, you know? I think that's something that's very problematic. If you don't do additional work like that, you're deemed as someone who is not able to work, which gives an impression of your conduct as an employee, which is unfair.

Read the second part of the interview here.