By TWC2 volunteer Sandeep, based on an interview in February 2021

Jan Shak Mohabbat has a unique name. Containing two words of endearment (‘jan’ and ‘mohabbat’ can loosely be translated to ‘beloved’ and ‘love’ respectively), he was named by his mother who wanted to express exactly those sentiments towards her youngest child.

Jan Shak’s experience in Singapore, unfortunately, is not unique at all.

For 13 years prior to coming here, Jan was in the Bangladeshi army and was a professional boxer too. He wiggles his nose to show how many times it has been broken. But when both these careers ended, he was forced to seek employment overseas.

Having chosen Singapore due to its proximity, Jan arrived in the wee hours of 13 September 2018 with only a phone number to call once he landed at the airport. Jan called and called again, only to be given excuses by his contact on when he would be picked up. Approximately four and a half hours later, Jan’s new foreman finally picked him up from the airport.

Jan still remembers his first meal in Singapore at 3pm that day. Consisting of chicken briyani, Jan found it hard to palate the dish as the spices and ingredients used were in stark contrast to the food he was used to in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, he was glad to have food. His previous meal had been at 8pm the night before, prior to his flight.

Further surprises were in store for Jan as he made his way to his lodging. He was stunned to learn that he was to share his living space with 50 men, in a room of three-tier beds. There was no privacy and little space one could call one’s own. Jan was given the top tier on the bed, and recalls the feeling of suffocation — being so close to the ceiling and unable to sit upright in his bed without knocking his head.

Tired, hungry and confused, Jan was unable to control his emotions. He cried himself to sleep that night, and every other night for the next month.

The first few weeks after his arrival, Jan would borrow his colleagues’ phones to call his parents and wife. He was only able to afford his own phone two months later. The initial calls saw Jan putting up a brave front but as the pressures of adjusting to a new language and 12-hour work days mounted, Jan found his resolve cracking. He confided to his family his difficulties and his desire to quit and go home. However, he was told that he had no choice but to keep working. At the very least, he needed to recover the debt incurred in coming to Singapore.

And thus began Jan’s long slog as a migrant worker in Singapore.