Singapore is so short of labour that a well-known taxi company has been relying on construction workers to run its vehicle workshops. They are asked to clean the taxis, but also “do gearbox repair,” says Uddin Jashim, 31, a former worker there.

Your writer asks him, with some concern, “Do you know how to repair gear boxes?”

“No, I don’t know. Never do before.”

Jashim has worked over ten years in Singapore. His training and experience is in metal formwork, i.e. making the moulds before concrete is poured. That’s a world away from automotive repair.

He and co-worker Rahman Habibur, 34, came to TWC2 over salary disputes with TCL Construction Pte Ltd, the company that was officially their employer. Their conversation with a TWC2 caseworker seemed like any other discussion that clients would have with TWC2 until your writer overhead the remark that they were in fact sent to work at Transcab’s workshop in Ang Mo Kio. It wasn’t to do any renovation or construction work, but their jobs were directly related to the fleet of taxis.

TWC2 regularly hears of men being deployed to places were they aren’t supposed to work, but this one is new — a taxi workshop.

While these two men are no longer working there, “nearly twenty [other] men” from Bangladesh are still there, says Habibur. Additionally, “some more at the Defu Lane workshop, but we don’t know how many.” These men do various tasks; “some men working in tyre shop.”

“All men have salary problem also, same like us, but they scared to complain.”

Other than being asked occasionally to help with repairs, Jashim’s routine tasks were “cleaning and pump diesel into cars,” but also “do security guard.” Sometimes he was asked to drive the cars, though only within the yard. “Boss ask me to shift the cars, from outside to park inside, here and there.” Jashim does not have a driving licence.

In mid-February 2017, he was supposed to be the guard at the gate, but the boss asked him to clean a car as well. While doing that, a taxi-driver apparently came into the workshop and drove a vehicle off. The boss then scolded Jashim, but Jashim pointed out that he had been asked to clean a car instead. One thing led to another and the angry boss then cancelled his Work Permit. Jashim, who had been frustrated for some time over incorrect salary calculations, was now liberated. He had nothing more to lose, so he went off to the Ministry of Manpower to lodge a complaint about salary short-payment.

Interestingly, he didn’t mention to the ministry that he was working in a taxi company. It probably never occurred to him that it would be of any significance.

TCL Construction Pte Ltd is wholly owned by one man: Teo Kiang Ang. He holds all the 20,000 issued shares of the company, and is its Managing Director. A quick websearch will also show Teo Kiang Ang referred to as “founder”, “CEO”, “Chairman”and “head honcho” of Transcab.

As far as Jashim and Habibur are concerned, they were working for the same boss whether in renovation or in fleet maintenance. Even if they were at times queasy about the arrangement, speaking up would cost them their jobs. Jashim had paid $1,500 in early 2016 to get this job, and Habibur had paid $5,000 two years ago. Their fears that crossing their boss in any way would cost them their livelihoods were hardly imaginary — the incident about the taxi driving off and making the boss angry proved it all. Jashim lost his job at once.

However, a strict reading of the law would indicate that a violation (“illegal deployment”) has occurred. Jashim and Habibur are supposed to be working for TCL Construction on its construction projects. The boss should not have put them in the vehicle workshops of Transcab. It does not matter if two companies are held by the same shareholder.

Habibur, who has worked about 8 years in Singapore (in previous jobs), was trained as a welder and electrician. At Transcab — though he too was, strictly speaking, employed by TCL Construction — his job was to be the “car issuer”. It was mostly a desk job, signing taxis out to drivers.

His tasks also involved driving cars around the yard. While doing this in September 2016, he hit a skip (called dumpster in the US) and damaged the front bumper of a taxi. Habibur does not have a driving licence either. The furious boss told him to pay about $2,000 for repairs. $300 would be deducted from his salary each month till the sum was clawed back from him. Naturally, Habibur was not happy, but to quit would be worse.

Work Permit holders cannot resign from one job and look for alternative employment. The rules say they must go back to their home country. To get a new job, they have to pay agents thousands of dollars again. These rules entrap workers in their existing jobs and employers know they can take advantage of them.

More misfortune struck in January 2017. While cleaning and inspecting a car that was parked too close to a ditch, “I fall into longkang,” Habibur says, using the colloquial word for “drain”. With an injured leg, now he was really out of a job.

On the other hand, like Jashim, he was now free to lodge a complaint at the ministry for salary short-payment.

A subsequent story will get into those details, and the company’s incorrect calculations.