Many jobs lost will never return – this forecast of global economists after lockdown comes true to the life of Nasir Uddin, a mid-level apparel employee in Bangladesh.
He used to work as a floor in-charge at Majumdar Garments in Gazipur's Tongi. When the factory was closed at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, he moved to his hometown in Barishal.
Although the factory was reopened a few days later, he could not return to join work on time as public transports were closed. He lost his job and became unemployed.
When his attempts to get a new job failed, he started his own T-shirt factory in August through a partnership with three former colleagues of different organisations – Faruq Hossain, Md Sujan, and Rakib Ahmed. He started small with 15 workers.
The number of workers exceeded 25 at the end of December, he tells The Business Standard. They have already invested about Tk17 lakh in old and new machinery.
"Apart from making T-shirts and selling them in the local market, I am trying to work with big organisations on a contract basis," Nasir says.
They are still putting money into their new venture in the hope that good days will come.
Many people like these three either became entrepreneurs or changed modes of livelihood after losing their jobs during the ongoing pandemic. But very few of them were lucky.
The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) estimates are even higher. Its latest survey finds more than 3.57 lakh workers lost jobs in the apparel sector alone amid the Covid-19 pandemic. It means that 14 of every 100 workers lost their jobs between December 2019 and September 2020.
Average number of workers per apparel factory dropped to 790 from 866, says the survey conducted on over 600 factories in Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Chattogram.
Moreover, the pandemic left people in several sectors – such as tourism and hospitality, leather, private kindergartens, backward linkages in large factories, and small farming – in a worse condition than those in the apparel industry.
More job loss means less income, pulling more people into poverty afresh. Research organisation South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (Sanem) says about 42% of the population now live below the poverty line; the figure was 21.6% in 2018. People's consumption dropped, reflecting lower disposable income compared to two years ago.
Some jobs have returned, but their income has not yet returned to the pre-pandemic level.
Floor in-charge Nasir used to earn Tk50,000 per month before Covid-19, now he can earn at best Tk15,000.
Economists say people are being compelled to change jobs because of the changing circumstances caused by the pandemic. They are taking up new professions after failing to earn livelihoods from their old businesses or jobs.
With this change, economists think economic recovery needs to be accelerated by increasing the government's policy support.
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute, said the pandemic had drastically changed consumer behaviour as work now involves risks and obstacles.
He said people are getting involved in new occupations by utilising their experience and being tactical, but many are still unemployed.
Various research institutes say 6.82 crore people were employed in the country and 3.6 crore lost jobs because of the pandemic in the 66-day general holiday announced by the government from 26 March to 31 May last year.
But government figures say the number of unemployed people so far is 14 lakh. As the economy recovers, these people are taking up new professions.
Tourism and hospitality hit the hardest
Most of the career changes took place in the tourism and hospitality sector, and 90% of entrepreneurs in this sector became involved in other professions.
Zahirul Alam Bhuiyan had started his business as a travel agent and tour operator in 2001. His company, Discovery Tours & Logistic, has been providing visa and ticket processing services, inbound and outbound tour packages, cruise, and domestic and international hotel booking.
But he was forced to become a food supplier as travel and tourism is one of the worst-affected sectors amid the pandemic.
"When the pandemic seemed to linger in June last year, I realised that my business was going to plunge into a prolonged period of uncertainty. So, I decided to supply food across the country both manually and online," Zahir said. His new venture has put him back to work, but earning is only 10% of what he used to earn before the pandemic.
Zahir is among many other entrepreneurs in this sector, including travel agents, tour operators, tour guides, and Hajj and Umrah agency owners, who were forced to choose alternative ways to earn their bread and butter.
The Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh has around 700 members, and less than 10% are now in operation.
There are around 4,000 registered travel agencies that offer air ticketing services. Of them, around 1,238 have Hajj and Umrah licence as well.
8 lakh kindergarten teachers change profession
Tamanna Islam, founder of Popular International School in Dhaka's Adabor, now sells fruits on the street.
She said she is unable to pay the teachers and her husband's job loss has only added to the misery.
"I have closed my school. I do not know how I will reopen it. The pandemic has shattered my dreams. Now, I am struggling to just survive," she told The Business Standard.
Moshiur Rahman Suruz, founder of Rode Model Kindergarten in Meherpur, is selling biscuits door to door to manage his family expenses.
Kindergarten owners and teachers across the country are in a dismal situation as the schools face severe financial crisis and cannot even pay teachers' salaries. Like Tamanna and Moshiur, many have changed professions and are now forced to work as boatmen, vendors, and day labourers.
Moreover, many kindergarten owners have turned their schools into grocery stores. Others are running businesses such as laundry in their schools.
With no way out, many elementary schools have closed permanently.
According to government data, there are around 55,000 private educational institutions, including nurseries, that employ about 8 lakh teachers.
People also joined a range of new sectors, such as cleaning companies, apps and games development, electronics, health care, delivery services, lorry driving, telemedicine services, and fitness.
Several sectors, such as e-commerce and food delivery services, flourished during the pandemic.
After completing his master's from Jahangirnagar University, Ibrahim Hossain set up a farm in Manikganj in 2018 with 10 cows and about 2,000 chickens. He took out loans and made the farm twice as large by last year.
But milk sales stopped shortly after the Covid-19 outbreak in March 2020. Chicken and egg sales also started declining.
Ibrahim had to sell everything to pay workers and repay debts. He is now running a food store named Food Haven in Savar. He also takes orders online and has signed deals with various e-commerce organisations, such as Foodpanda and Evaly.
Moreover, he has opened a Facebook page of his shop where he receives orders directly from customers. He delivers bread and paratha to people's homes.
He said e-commerce now accounts for 70% of his sales.
Muhammad Abdul Wahed Tomal, general secretary of the e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh, said e-commerce witnessed a revolution during the pandemic as online sales increased by 60-70% compared to the past.
He said the association had 1,200 members, but the number has exceeded 2,000 during the pandemic.
Tomal said over 5 lakh e-commerce entrepreneurs are based on Facebook.
Career changes in other sectors
For several years, Taslima Khatun in Dhaka's Mohammadpur had been manufacturing and exporting various leather products such as bags and belts. After the pandemic struck, production came to a halt as she could not procure raw materials. She could not sell products from the stock either.
After a few days, Taslima started making cloth masks. She later began making clothes for women and children in addition to masks and offered home delivery services on Facebook.
Her leather goods factory, which was opened with 14-15 female workers, was closed at the beginning of the pandemic. She has now increased the number of workers after starting the new business. She has also recruited five new workers to provide home delivery services.
Taslima said her workers did not have to sit idle when production at the leather factory stopped.
"I made arrangements for their livelihoods, and business grew with new ideas," she added.
Like Taslima, many of the 93,000 entrepreneurs in the small and medium enterprise sector have started new businesses in the face of the changing circumstances. As communication systems with other countries have not fully restored yet, exporters of unconventional products as well as owners of crab, cuchia and shrimp farms are changing professions.