At 8pm, Bangladeshi worker Kazal receives a text message on his mobile phone: meet at 9am the next day at a Jurong West coffee shop. He knows the sender. But the assignment, as always, is a mystery.
On arrival, the brief is delivered: He has to paint an HDB flat and will be paid $60. Payment is to be made at the end of the day, in cash, of course.
Kazal, who declined to give his full name, is one of hundreds of moonlighting foreign workers who source for illegal jobs here through an informal network.
Most of them are injured as a result of their legal work. They ran away from their official employers because they were not paid and are afraid they may be sent home.
Their work permits are cancelled but they have been issued special passes, which allow them to stay in Singapore legally as they wait for compensation. They are not allowed to work when holding special passes but many ignore the law.
The illegal stints, which can be from a day to a few months, are recommended by other foreign workers who act as middlemen for employers.
This clandestine job market is lucrative: bosses pay workers up to $80 a day. The men take home about $60, with $20 going to the middlemen as commission. In contrast, the men earn $30 a day working for their legal employers.
Workers interviewed on the condition of anonymity said they do a diverse range of jobs and have managed to go unnoticed as the tasks are largely innocuous.
They clean HDB estates, work in wet markets, help karung guni (rag and bone) men, wash cars, move furniture, paint homes, assemble goods in factories, do electrical wiring and general maintenance work in offices.
Desperate to get hired, the men, who usually stay in shophouses in Little India, take on jobs without haggling for more pay.
Kazal, 22, who has been moonlighting for eight months, said: “I try to ask for more money, boss say ‘You go. I find other men’.”
The booming sector is encouraging more workers to run away, owners of more than 30 firms in the marine and construction sectors told The Straits Times last month.
Those who hire them illegally are usually small cleaning and construction firms. Bosses who hire workers illegally can offer higher salaries as they do not need to pay foreign worker levies to the Government or buy insurance.
Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha editor A.K.M. Mohsin said many foreign workers run away and moonlight to escape abusive bosses, but added that they are also drawn by the attractive salaries for illegal work. “They can earn more than $1,000 a month, far more than with their legal employer,” he said.
However, workers said that while their daily wages from illegal work are higher, overall takings are low because work is irregular.
They also live in fear of being caught. Iqbal, 22, who has been moonlighting for more than a year, said he has a script if he is rounded up by the police. “If police come, I say I am here to see, see. Look for my friends.”
They can be fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed for up to two years for working while holding a Special Pass. Last month, a Bangladeshi was jailed for six weeks for making up an accident and working illegally.
Such jobs are inherently dangerous too. The men risk more injuries as they often are not provided with safety equipment such as harnesses and hard hats.
Those who take on jobs for higher pay – such as selling contraband cigarettes, codeine cough syrup and illegal sex drugs – also face harsher penalties if caught by the police.
Workers said they hope the authorities will allow them to be transferred to other employers so they can work legally. Said Kazal: “Every day I’m scared. I want one boss. I get pay every month, don’t need to worry.”