COVID-19 has affected people from nearly all walks of life: be it an employee sitting in an office or someone working outdoors or making things at factories. Many of them have lost their jobs, not been paid or become uncertain of what the post-pandemic world may be able to offer them.
Shama is one such worker. In her mid-30’s, she is a mother of five. They live in a two-room house in Karachi’s Data Nagar neighbourhood of Orangi Town. Her eldest daughter and son work to support her in making both ends meet.
This Eidul Fitr the mother got all the children only one pair of new clothes each after taking a loan from a friend. “The factory where I worked was closed because of the coronavirus,” said Shama while describing how she has been enduring the preventive lockdown.
“This month we were called to the factory for our dues. We were given our salaries only for the month of March. And the supervisor told us that our work with them was over. He didn’t explain why. And he said there was no salary for April.”
Shama had been working since the age of 12. Starting out as a domestic help, her most recent job was working at a garment factory as a machine operator. She earned Rs17,000 a month. Her daughter and son had been earning between Rs10,000 and Rs12,000.
The daughter used to work at a manufacturing unit but quit because she felt uncomfortable there. The son used to go to the garment factory with his mother but both of them have now been laid off.
“We have only the March salary to survive on, but it can last long because of rations from philanthropists,” said Shama. “We’re in debt now and don’t know how to repay the loan. The factory didn’t tell us anything about work, except that they’ll call us if needed.”
Farhan, 23, also works at a garment factory and is the sole breadwinner for his family. He lives with his mother and three younger siblings in a rented house in New Karachi. He met with the same fate as Shama. He, however, was able to get his April salary after signing a resignation letter.
“I’ve never faced such a situation,” said Farhan. “You can’t even take a loan from your friends because they too are facing the same thing as you. You can’t get a job anywhere else because there are no vacancies. All that we have are sackings and hopelessness.”
The News spoke to factory owners to understand why the textile industry has been losing workers. Mohib Exports CEO Syed Iqbal Haider said garment manufacturers had already been facing losses due to a halt in the global supply chain and the changing patterns of buying garments.
Haider said factories used to make garments for specific seasons and planned their manufacture accordingly. “Now because of this big gap and the global conditions, the financial situation is uncertain. Already the goods produced recently have not reached the market yet.”
Although the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has introduced a refinance scheme for businesses to support the employment of workers, many businesses tend not to obtain it.
Haider explained that the SBP interest rate is an expense on its own, but when a business does not appear to be sustainable due to the current circumstances, why would somebody want to incur another long-term expense, especially when the future of their business is uncertain.
Adeel International owner Ayaz Ali said the garment industry has gone “clean flat”. He said factories had been producing clothes for the summer season in the US and Europe, but now that had also lapsed because of the global and local lockdown.
“Some we could not ship because of the lockdown here, and some could not reach there because of the lockdown there. The buyer has either refused to receive the shipment or asked for a discount of up to 50 per cent – that too on a 90- to 120-day payment plan.”
Ali said the market has been suffering due to uncertainty, and the people tend not to work on credit because they are sceptical about their investment seeing any returns. He added that the garment industry employs a million workers, 30 per cent of whom are immigrants.
The Home-Based Women Workers Federation had decided to work from home after the COVID-19 outbreak, but the organisation’s general secretary, Zehra Khan, had to return to the field after cases of unemployment and non-payment of salaries started to emerge.
“It’s hard to say exactly how many workers were fired during this lockdown in Karachi but it’s a fairly large number,” said Zehra. “According to an estimate, around six million people in the country face employment insecurity. Hopefully, we can get a clearer picture after Eid because some people got work due to easing off of the lockdown.”
She also took part in the ration drive with the Edhi Foundation. She said that in the early days of the lockdown, when their vehicle drove into a neighbourhood, people surrounded them to get ration bags. “The situation was really bad, but it started to improve in the following days.”
Zehra said that many of the factories and companies have not paid their employees in full or have ended their services, which is a clear violation of the Sindh government’s orders in connection with the novel coronavirus emergency. “People have to pay rents, school fees, and electricity and other bills. How will they be able to when they don’t have jobs?”
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