The COVID-19 pandemic has a growing impact on the global economy and rising unemployment in many countries. As the crisis unfolds, informal workers remain vulnerable to economic shock, while many of them need assistance to locate new employment and earn reliable income. Those who need such support can turn to a platform called Workmate.
Workmate connects businesses with informal and casual workers in Indonesia and Thailand, where demand has been increasing during the pandemic. The company recorded its highest traffic in May and June, when Indonesia implemented a large-scale social restriction policy. “The workers on our platform have been deemed as essential workers; they are the guys who are doing deliveries or working in warehouses. We’ve seen a significant surge in the past two months,” Workmate co-founder and CEO Mathew Ward told KrASIA in a recent interview.
“Workmate offers a win-win solution for both employers and workers in the time of crisis like this. Part-time work is not very common in markets like Indonesia and Thailand, so it is difficult for blue-collar workers to get income. By joining our platform, workers will have more options. For example, we can send you to work with the Ismaya Group for two days and work with Grab for three days. This way, workers can still work for five days a week while companies can hire employees according to their needs,” he added.
Informal workers make up more than 50% of Southeast Asia’s workforce, but they have been massively underserved by digital innovation, Ward continued. Workmate’s mission is to give these workers access to consistent employment and income by utilizing technology.
Ward and his partner John Srivovakul founded the startup in 2016 under the name Helpster. The company initially offered on-demand home services before pivoting its business model to staffing. “Previously, our platform allowed people to book electricians or plumbers online. Towards the end of 2016, we realized that these informal workers had difficulties in earning a consistent income. Many companies also couldn’t access qualified labor conveniently when they need it,” Ward said. This translated into a business opportunity, especially since most HR tech providers focused on formal jobs, he added.
The firm officially rebranded and changed its name to Workmate in November last year to better represent its mission and business. According to Ward, Workmate serves as a digital version of a contract labor agency; it manages the entire process, from recruitment to worker payments.
“The workers are on our payroll, so we are the official legal employer for them. When a client requests 50 workers for a six-week contract, our platform will connect them with potential workers who fit their requirements. It will also manage workers’ timesheets and attendance, as well as deliver the payment for them,” Ward explained.
Headquartered in Singapore, Workmate currently has a network of 30,000 people who are available to work every day. The startup partners with around 200 companies, mostly in the e-commerce and logistics sectors. Among Workmate’s notable clients are aCommerce, Lazada, and Grab in Thailand. Meanwhile in Indonesia, it works with Tokopedia, Kopi Kenangan, and giant F&B chain Ismaya Group.
The startup also partnered with the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, where it successfully managed more than a thousand workers during the major event. “The organizer came to us at the last minute, asking to help them assemble and manage the workforce. They needed housekeepers, cleaners, and other workers appointed in the athletes’ village. The reason we could deliver these workers quickly is that we’re connected to thousands of workers through our platform, so it is very efficient. That was a notable achievement for us as it really showed the value of our platform.”
So far, the company has raised a total of USD 10.6 million from several investors, including Atlas Ventures and Wavemaker Partners. Workmate recently joined Grab Ventures Velocity’s third accelerator cohort that focused on companies providing services that can help GrabFood merchants increase their business efficiency.
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“We will provide restaurants and merchants with flexible manpower solutions. So rather than hiring people on full-time salaries when businesses are going through an uncertain time, merchants will be able to add staff just for the days they need them, translating into more affordable operational costs,” Ward said. The GVV program will run until August, and Workmate hopes to work with as many merchants as possible.
Protecting workers for short-time projects can be challenging. Ward said that Workmate is able to provide workers significantly longer employment tenures, as most jobs on the platform run for three months or longer.
“The platform is able to allocate the next job in advance, so they roll from one job to another quickly and easily. This reduces their income downtime. If clients reduce their manpower needs suddenly, the system looks for the next available job, which gets them into the next job quickly,” Ward said. Worker entitlements guaranteed by employment law are built into Workmate’s pricing plan. If there are early termination costs, these are borne by the clients, not Workmate itself.
Workmate takes commission from clients; workers can use the platform for free. Ward said Workmate is already profitable in Thailand, and it aims to hit the same milestone in Indonesia by the fourth quarter this year.
Going forward, Workmate will continue to enhance its services, especially for workers. The platform already offers protection from wage fraud and provides social security, and it is currently piloting a cash advance program that will be officially launched next year, followed by insurance products for workers. Moreover, Workmate is going to launch operations in Singapore by early 2021 and aims to secure its Series B funding round afterward.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.