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April 23, 2020

Caught between a virus-hit economy and a ‘decent’ salary

Peshawar

April 23, 2020

KARACHI: Over a thousand labourers were sacked by a garment factory this month after an employee leaked a video which showed male and female staff members working in the factory’s unit in the Federal B Industrial Area despite the COVID-19 lockdown.

A raid was conducted at the factory after the video did the rounds on WhatsApp, and a few factory employees were arrested for the violation of the lockdown orders. However, neither was this the only factory to terminate the services of a large number of workers — most of them low-paid staff members — nor was it the only business to have been raided by the police for operating during the lockdown.

“Some of us were lucky. They didn’t fire us,” says a factory employee. “Now we are not allowed to bring mobile phones with us at work. Until I get back home, my family keeps worrying about me for having no way to communicate with me. The factory is still operating in secret.”

Employees have been told by the factory management that if a mobile phone was found on them, “it would be our last day at work,” says a female staff member. “They sacked both male and female workers. We are too scared to lose our jobs in this time of economic crisis.”

A small world: It is obvious that the employees working at the factory are not willing to disclose their identities while talking to the media, but what is disturbing is the sacked staff members either denying to talk to The News or speaking only a few words before ending the call.

“We are small people, and it’s a small world we’re working in,” a sacked employee managed to stutter a reply. “There are only a few big factories which pay us a decent amount. They [the managers] all know each other.”

A couple of the factory’s former employees say their comments against the factory management will “kill all their chances of working at a big factory”.

A sorry state: It is not worth mentioning here what laws there are to protect the employees or what rights the constitution guarantees the labour class. Much has been written about it; much has been spoken about it.

The ground reality is that nobody knows the exact number of workers who have been laid off since the lockdown came into effect, because nobody knew the accurate number of employees in the private companies operating in Karachi before the city was closed.

Two days after the announcement of the lockdown on March 23, the Sindh government issued a notification ordering that no worker be sacked during the closure and “all kinds of workers be paid salaries/remuneration/wages in full by their respective employers”.

On April 9, the government started preparing the draft of an ordinance to offer institutional concessions and facilities to people in view of their financial crunch.

It was said the ordinance will make it lawfully binding upon the employers not to lay off or terminate the services of any of their employees during the lockdown.

However, a majority of low-paid workers are recruited by a third-party contractor for big companies, or even without a contract in writing. So, it is quite convenient to lay them off because they don’t have any appointment letter.

Informal interviews with factory workers suggest that a number of them are paid salaries in cash in order to avoid a contract and also for tax evasion.

It’s a shame this practice is common not only in factories, where disadvantaged citizens do labour work, but this is also a routine affair at a large number of coaching centres, private clinics and companies earning millions in profits every year.

Salary cuts: An engineer who teaches at a coaching centre told The News that he got only 40 per cent of his salary for the month of March.

“As the coaching centre was closed last month, the management immediately started online classes. Despite working for the whole month with them via online classes, they cut 60 per cent of my salary,” laments Azeem, who is the sole breadwinner of his family.

The tuition centre earns a huge amount every month, he adds. “Majority of the students had even paid their fees in advance, as they always do, but the centre slashed the salaries of majority of the teachers and non-teaching staff members. It’s because nobody regulates this tuition industry.”

However, small coaching centres operating on rented properties are in a state of trouble. Muhammad Basit runs one such coaching centre in the Mehmoodabad neighbourhood.

“I have paid salaries for March to my staff members in full. But I don’t know how to pay the rent for this month [April],” wonders Basit, who has no other option but to send his staff on unpaid leave.

Genuinely terrified: If one industry is to be picked for being the unluckiest amid the coronavirus spread, it is arguably the tourism sector. Just when they thought that the industry in the year 2020 will have a boom, they came to realise that they are facing its doom.

“We have had pre-bookings for the next six months,” says Komail Abbas, CEO of FindMyAdventure, a tourism start-up which was founded in 2016.

The country’s tourism industry was flourishing because of the trips of western tourists and vloggers, and also because of the government’s efforts to promote tourism, due to which the country’s ranking was significantly improved, says Abbas.

“We got funding from foreign investors, after which we expanded our operations and recruited new team members. But now all the bookings have been cancelled. We don’t even know what is coming for us next.”

Fear and uncertainty: Majority of the start-ups which managed to create a market space in the last two years — after the trend of entrepreneurship touched its peak in the country — are marred by fear and uncertainty in the lockdown.

However, some are managing to stay relevant despite the crisis. Of them, one is the Investors Lounge, a financial market information engine primarily associated with the stock market.

“For now, we are surviving because we have big institutions as our clients. Unlike others, our testing time will start once the lockdown restrictions are lifted. Only then the market trends will decide the future of a lot of companies,” says Sennen Desouza, the company’s co-founder.

Dark horses: A few companies providing essential and online services are flourishing in the lockdown. One of them is Dawaai, which delivers medicines via online orders. The company recently got a funding from a foreign investor.

CEO Furqan Kidwai says they are getting a large of number of orders, but complains that their riders are facing problems because the law enforcers give them a tough time on the roads despite having official letters stating they are providing an essential service.

However, not all online ventures are earning good profits despite catering to an unprecedented amount of internet traffic. “Our applications are being downloaded by a large number of internet users,” says Arif Hissam, CEO of Pakistan Data Management Services, “but due to the financial depression, people are not spending money on premier features or paid internet products.”

Only way forward: In an increasingly complex business market, the citizens are naturally looking towards their governments to find a cure for the economic slowdown. In the opinion of Mubashir Sakhi, an entrepreneur running a clothing brand, “the economic catastrophe is beyond the control of any government”.

“If we talk about just our local market,” he says, “the only way forward is convincing the current lot of seths to invest in technology and local start-ups.”

But, he adds, it is an uphill task to persuade those seths. “Neither are they ready to understand the technology nor are they willing to trust the younger generation. This ‘sethia culture’ is keeping us from adopting advanced and ethical business practices.”

Sakhi calls on the country’s tycoons to support small traders and young entrepreneurs, as “without a conducive business environment, everyone will be a loser — sooner or later”.