Mohammad Rigan has been a shoe-maker for nearly for 12 year. He and his family are totally dependent on his earnings of Tk15,000-Tk20,000 per month from a footwear manufacturing factory in Brahmanbaria. He also supports his parents who live in their village home.
The virus outbreak has jeopardised his livelihood as the factory was shuttered during the lockdown. He has not been able to pay his house rent for two months, and now he is experiencing a scarcity of food at home.
Being on the verge of starvation, he went to harvest paddy as a farm-worker. But as Rigan could not cut paddy like other seasoned labourers, he had to come back.
Like Rigan, an estimated 3,000 workers in the emerging Brahmanbaria footwear industry stare at a bleak future as most of the shoe making factories have been closed since March 25.
Before the shutdown over the virus pandemic, there were more than 150 factories in production in different areas of Brahmanbaria, including the Peer Bari, Natai, Bhatpara and Rajghar areas.
Wholesalers from different parts of the country come here to buy shoes as the prices are relatively low – ranging from Tk180 to Tk400 – depending on quality.
Factory owners said they have to pay the utility bills even though the factories are closed during the lockdown. The lockdown has slashed footwear sales drastically. On top of that, the raw material that is piled-up at the warehouses is getting damaged.
The footwear industry of Brahmanbaria was started by a man named Mahmud Ali, who came from Patna, India in 1963 and established a shoe factory in the Kumarshil area of the city.
Later, other people got interested in the business and the industry flourished during the succeeding decades.
No Eid bounty this year
The people involved in Brahmanbaria's footwear industry said sales over the two Eid periods every year are the lifeblood of their business. Money rolls in as Eid sales gain momentum during Ramadan every year. The workers also earn extra owing to the spiked Eid sales.
Comparatively large factories supply footwear worth Tk5-10 lakh while smaller manufacturers sell shoes worth around Tk1 to Tk1.50 lakh per day during Ramadan. Shoe manufacturers prepare beforehand every year for the holy month.
While workers manufacture footwear items round the clock during this season, the thriving footwear hub of the country is bracing for big losses in an unprecedented turn of events this year.
"I used to earn Tk5,000 to Tk10,000 during Ramadan and spend it on new clothing for my family. But my family is on the verge of starvation this year," said Rigan.
He fears that starvation will lead to death if this situation prolongs.
Another footwear industry worker named Mohammad Selim said he has lined up for relief goods. He cannot switch to other professions because he does not know any.
"This situation is unprecedented. I have never seen anything like this before," said another worker named Nahidul Islam.
"Hunger knows no fear of virus infection. We do not know when things will become normal," he added.
Limited market reopening will not be enough for the manufacturers
Footwear manufacturers said the shopping mall and market reopening on a limited-scale from May 10 will not be enough for them. The more than one-month countrywide shutdown has already hampered their raw material supply.
They said the limited sales for 10 to 15 days before Eid will not cover the losses they have sustained. Apart from this, footwear manufacturers doubt whether people will crowd in for Eid shopping this year amid the pandemic.
The owner of Active footwear, Rakibur Rahman, said Eid sales are the lifeblood of their business.
"I had a target of Tk8 lakh sales per day during the month. But the virus has devastated everything," he said in frustration.
Disha Shoes owner Mohammad Nadim said he sells on credit round the year and collects the dues during Ramadan. "Total collection of the credits against the backdrop of the virus crisis is impossible this year."
Meanwhile, Mohsin Mia, general secretary of the Brahmanbaria Footwear Industry Owners Association, said they eagerly wait for Ramadan throughout the year. Ironically, the month has appeared this year with the highest losses.
Mohsin said they need government help to keep the emerging sector alive and to overcome the losses.