Dhaka resident Moktar Hosen used to work at Bhuyan Tannery for Tk400 a day. However, he lost his job in the last week of February this year.
Moktar then started pulling a non-motorised rickshaw-van to provide his families with three meals a day. "I cannot go out even for pulling rickshaws due to the shutdown. Now there is no other option for me except to starve," he said.
Like Moktar, an estimated 25,000 tannery workers stare at a bleak future as most of the leather processing factories have been shuttered for more than three months.
China is the main buyer of Bangladesh's processed raw hides and leather products. The raw material and chemicals for processing raw leather also come from China.
Tanners said their business with China ceased in the last week of December as Covid-19 raced around the country. Therefore, most of the Bangladeshi tanneries shuttered down in January leaving thousands of temporary workers jobless.
Though factories paid some daily-basis workers in that period, the temporary workers became completely jobless from March.
In fact, many permanent workers have not got their salaries for March because the country went into shutdown on March 26.
"We have started paying the permanent workers. Many factories have completed their payments. But the owners are in a cash crisis as export orders and factories have been closed for the last three months," said Shakawat Ullah, general secretary of the Bangladesh Tanners Association (BTA).
At present, 188 factories that process rawhides are BTA members. These tanneries employ 25,000 people, and only 5,000-7,000 of them are permanent workers.
Tk450 crore worth of products stockpiled
BTA President Md Shaheen Ahamed said China could not import products that the country had ordered because of the Chinese New Year.
"We have a stockpile of products amounting to Tk450 crore. The owners do not have cash and most of the factories were closed even before Bangladesh went into lockdown," Shaheen added.
The BTA president says their members will not be able to pay their workers if the government does not lend a hand.
Selim Ahmed, the owner of Zindabad Tannery Ltd said Chinese buyers have not been placing new orders since the coronavirus issue surfaced.
"The export of all kinds of leather and leather goods have ceased. The buyers have cancelled their earlier orders too," he further said.
Echoing the BTA president, Selim said they are unable to pay workers' salaries. "I had to incur Tk2 crore loss in the last three months," he added.
Shift from European market to China endangered
Md Mazakat Harun, senior vice president of the BTA, told The Business Standard that tanners had to stockpile 40-50 percent of their collected rawhides annually as European buyers had been turning away from Bangladeshi products.
"We targeted China as the alternative market. But the coronavirus outbreak has spoiled that too," Harun sounded upset.
Leather and leather products are the biggest foreign currency earners after apparels for Bangladesh. The country exported $1 billion worth of leather and leather products in the last fiscal year, and this year's target had been set at $1.1 billion.
The country exported leather goods worth $250 million in the first six months of the current fiscal year.