Anxiety about job security continues to grow, as the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t seem to end anytime soon. The International Labor Organization (ILO) predicts that around 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy—equivalent to nearly half of the global workforce—are in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.
The startup scene is not immune from the decline. Airbnb cut a quarter of its staff earlier this month as the travel industry has been slammed. In Southeast Asia, Temasek-backed fashion startup Zilingo laid off one third of its workers in the Singapore office. Budget hotel booking platform RedDoorz has cut around 10% of its workforce in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Philippines, while OYO furloughed thousands of its employees worldwide, including in the SEA region.
However, in a few selected sectors, startups manage to thrive, opening up new job opportunities. The number of vacancies doesn’t match the losses by a long shot, but it might help some of the unemployed to pay their bills.
Singapore saw a slight uptick in overall unemployment due to COVID-19 as the rate rose to above 3% for both citizen and residents according to the Ministry of Manpower. It is expected to increase even more in 2020, reaching around 4%, as the country is curbing the spread of COVID-19 by enforcing a “circuit breaker”.
The Singaporean government was quick in anticipating the economic toll of the pandemic. Until May, it rolled out three stimulus packages and announced the fourth one earlier this week. There are also smaller initiatives targeting specific sectors, such as Enterprise Singapore’s “E-Commerce Booster Package” launched in early April.
An attempt to help small and medium enterprises weather the COVID-19 impact, the government agency is partnering with the e-commerce platforms Amazon, Lazada, Qoo10, and Shopee. SMEs with little to no knowledge about e-commerce will receive financial assistance to join one of the partner-platforms, as well as guidance on marketing and advertising. Electronic retailing has been one of the few sectors that was thriving during the pandemic.
Retailers still active on the job market
Lazada, for example, saw traffic and transactions on its platform soaring since January. With growing demand, the company faces difficulties to deliver items on time, especially for its online grocery service RedMart.
Lazada had to hire more workers. “We were quick to adapt to the changing needs of our community and tweaked our RedMart operations in several ways. We moved from a time-based delivery system to an area-based one and scaled up our workforce with more than 500 hires—full-time and temporary,” Lazada Singapore CEO James Chang told KrASIA.
The company tapped into the displaced workers’ pool to find more manpower. With the new recruits, RedMart’s delivery capacity increased by more than 50% compared to pre-COVID-19, said Chang.
The online retailer expects more merchants to join its platform due to the booster package. “Most recently, more than 300 SMEs and businesses expressed interest to sign up as new sellers on Lazada,” said Chang. Participating companies receive a one-time 90% support on qualifying costs, capped at SGD 9,000.
HappyFresh, another player in the e-grocery sector, has begun hiring more delivery drivers and personal shoppers since April. With regards to the Indonesian market, country managing director Filippo Candrini said that new hires will be “in the hundreds” and trained in batches to respect the partial lockdown.
The company hasn’t responded to a request for comment on the number of new employees in Malaysia and Thailand.
Startup funding never dried up
Some early-stage startups are also on a hiring spree though smaller in numbers. Despite the circumstances, they managed to notch fresh capital and continue to grow their businesses. The Indonesian SME-focused software-as-a-service platform BukuKas, for example, is actively looking for new talent. The company recently received undisclosed funding from Sequoia India’s Surge, 500 Startups, and angel investors.
“We’re still hiring,” co-founder and CEO Krishnan Menon said in a recent interview. Roles are offered in the development team as the company plans to create new features for its app.
Other than that, venture capital firms across Southeast Asia also offered support to companies and employees in the ecosystem. The “SEAriously Awesome People” project, initiated by Jungle Ventures, Alpha JWC, and AC Ventures, listed people who lost their startup job. The initiative was shared on different social media channels of the participating VCs and widely reported in the media.