Hours and profits halved but neighbourhood workshop boss vows full wages for his mechanics

Kamarulzaman Motor workshop operates from 9am to 2pm during the MCO.

PETALING JAYA: Mohd Osman Abdul Wahab and his mechanics are busy repairing five motorcycles. They’re racing against the clock to finish before 2pm.

For that’s the time that movement control order (MCO) rules dictate they must down tools and close up their workshop for the day.

A stone’s throw from the Lembah Subang LRT depot tracks, Kamarulzaman Motor is a shanty motorcycle repair workshop perched on broken and potholed tarmac beside the People’s Housing Project (PPR) Taman Putra Damai flats in Petaling Jaya.

The apartment blocks, though full of families self-isolating, are quiet.

But down in the workshop, the roar of the air compressor drowns out conversation and even the sound of the motorbikes manoeuvring in and out.

A mechanic mounts a motorcycle tyre.

The hulking tower blocks provide no shade, and the workshop’s zinc roof does little to stop the heat piercing through, making already tricky tasks much harder for the four sweating mechanics toiling inside.

Outside, huge Hi-Rev garden umbrellas ward off some of the sun, and customers wait under them, sharing the shade with motorbikes spilling over from the workshop.

The customers keep glancing at their phones as they wait for their precious workhorses. Maybe they’re reading messages, but more likely they’re checking how long to go till two.

Most of them need to be back out on the road soon or they’ll be earning nothing today.

In the impossibly cramped and cluttered workshop, it’s difficult to maintain the required social distance but most are trying.

Masks are a nuisance but everyone knows they should wear them, not least of all because they prevent wearers from touching their faces. Osman’s mechanics are easy to spot: they’re the ones with oily fingerprints on their masks.

The noise of the air compressor means that masks have to be pulled down so people can lip read each other. Whenever the engine briefly falls silent, a tinny radio can he heard playing pop music.

The din of metal clanging on metal and the smell of oil as the mechanics change tyres by hand and replace engine oil is constant. Air lines run haphazardly across the floor.

Mohd Osman Abdul Wahab takes a look at a customer’s motorcycle.

Although it looks busy enough as they manoeuvre another motor into the crowded workshop, Osman says it’s actually quiet. In normal times he has around 60 customers every day. During lockdown he has around half that number.

He describes the effects of the MCO on his business.

“Most people in Lembah Subang work full-time so they only get home in the evening after six, so that is when they can bring in their motorcycles for repair. That’s why we normally stay open till 10 at night.”

But now their operating hours have been officially slashed from 12 hours a day to just five, from 9am until 2pm, and there’s no way they can help desperate riders after that.

“Our customers now are mostly food delivery riders and other frontline essential workers like policemen and soldiers. I estimate business is down by 60%.”

The effect of that on Osman’s bottom line is not difficult to calculate.

Despite this, cutting the salaries of any of his workers is the last thing on Osman’s mind. He is determined that his workforce will always be paid as if times were normal.

“I am still paying them their full wages. Before Covid-19 we usually made good profits,” he says. “So now it is time for me to look after my staff’s welfare.”

He peers over his mask. “They have families with kids who need feeding.”

Additionally, whenever life returns to normal after Covid-19 abates, Osman says he will not be raising his prices to make up for lost revenue.

“My customers are mostly PPR tenants,” he explains, gesturing at the nearby blocks. “Most of them struggle to make ends meet even during the good times.”

He admits he is finding it difficult to pay his men their full wages at a time when the business is only generating half its normal revenue.

A mechanic takes a closer look at a motorcycle.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) qualify for government aid, including wage subsidies of RM1,200 for each employee for three months, and an interest-free loan.

Osman’s workshop would qualify for that assistance, but he does not intend to apply.

“If the current problem is prolonged, then it will become very difficult for us to keep paying full wages. But so far we are okay,” he says. “So keep the aid for others who really need it right now.

“When we really need it ourselves, then we’ll apply for it. Or if need be, I’ll apply for a loan or cut my own salary.”

But he is determined not to cut his employees’ salaries.

Osman says he and his men understand the need for the MCO measures, including their reduced working hours.

“We know that the most important thing now is to break the chain of Covid-19 infections before it claims more lives. So we’ll do our bit to help bring that about.”

The clang and clatter of metal on metal rises to a crescendo as the mandated closing time looms.

Before the MCO restrictions, the workshop would have had a full eight hours of work to go, but not these days.

It’s now two o’clock.

For the mechanics at Kamarulzaman Motor Enterprise, their working day is over and the security grilles must be locked until tomorrow.