By: Nishant Singh Gurung and Raju Upreti for Aawaaj News
Scrap Yard Workers:
On Friday afternoon, Manju Devi, along with two other women is seen assorting rubbish to recycle. As infections rise nationwide, they are worried about another round of lockdown. Their collective income, from Rs 3,000 to 4,000 a day, has already dwindled by 70% to Rs 1,500 per day.
However, for them, this source of revenue isn’t always attainable. “We haven’t earned a single rupee today,” Devi shares, her voice sad and filled with fear.
Devi, the wife of a junk dealer, works at her husband’s scrap yard along the Bagmati river bank in Sanepa. “I have been handling the scrap yard on my own. My husband goes to collect scrap, while I handle the assortment activities here”, she tells us.
And now, both husband and wife fear what will happen to them if another lockdown is imposed. As the country navigates through a third wave, workers like Devi, who live on a day-to-day income, are worried that there could be a replay of the lockdown episodes of the previous years.
“When I think about the last lockdown, my eyes well up with tears. Without any income, we were on the verge of starvation. We survived on noodles”, Devi shares as she sifts through the waste piles.
It isn’t just Devi, who fears another lockdown.
Daily wage earners:
Salman Khan is a 42 year old bicycle mechanic who underwent a similar experience of financial uncertainties. Khan is the family’s breadwinner with a family of five to feed. He was able to make through the previous lockdowns thanks to a little savings and the kindness of his neighbours.
“What will I do now? I have burned up all my savings”, he shares.
“Everyone is saying the third wave is here and the government will announce a lockdown soon. This will affect our work and lives. We’re terrified, “shared Khan, who further shared that COVID-19 has slashed his income by 50 percent – from Rs 700-Rs 1,000 a day to barely Rs 500 a day.
“Labourers cannot enjoy a consistent income. We all live on rent, and the school fees of our kids make our lives tough. The 2020 lockdown still haunts us. We spent our days on our meagre savings, and even had to borrow money. Simply thinking about those days makes us shudder,” said Khan.
With 79,272 active cases, there is no denying that Nepal is undergoing a third wave. Although restrictions aren’t as severe as the previous two waves, labourers like Devi and Khan are often faced with the immediate brunt of such lockdowns.
And if another lockdown is to be enforced, they can’t live through the ordeal again.
The informal labour crisis:
On March 23, 2020, when Nepal announced its first lockdown, one of the biggest humanitarian crisis ensued in Nepal. Thousands of migrant labourers, almost all of them daily wage earners began their long walk back home due to a paucity of means to survive.
In less than a year, the second wave hit. Again, labourers found themselves in a similar situation. Their wages were reduced, and their savings were depleted. A question of survival hounded them.
As per the Nepal Labor Force Survey 2017/18, around 62.2% of people are employed in the informal sector. Similarly, while an average Nepali employee earns Rs 17,809, a low-wage worker might either earn somewhere around the minimum monthly wage of Rs 13,450 or might earn a minimum daily allowance.
However, according to Dhan Bahadur Parajuli, a construction worker, their earnings dropped from Rs 1000 to Rs 300 to 400 during the lockdowns and afterward.
“Many “had no work” due to lack of work. It was a very deplorable circumstance. Those who got jobs had to work for a pittance, which was unacceptable, but we had to work and accept the wage rather than sleep on an empty stomach,” Parajuli explained.
Now, with the third wave, as fear and rumours of the third lockdown circulate, many have returned home.
“The same thing happened last year,” Parajuli continued. “Many others, however, are optimistic that there will be no lockdown. Fear, however, is prevalent.”
Covid-19 affected not only the informal sector, but almost all sectors. Many were laid off. An assessment by the United Nations Development Programme last year found that 60 percent of the employees in micro and small businesses had lost their jobs while they saw a fall of 95 percent in average monthly income during the lockdown. The report showed the tourism and hospitality industries suffered the most.
Furthermore, it showed that the crisis affected women differently than men, especially those from lower income groups. According to the report, 28 percent of men lost their jobs during the lockdown, compared to 41 percent women.
Porters and Rickshaw Drivers:
Meanwhile, porters and rickshaw drivers in the valley are equally terrified of the lockdown.
Bhim Neupane, 41, a rickshaw driver in the Thamel region, is experiencing yet another economic downturn. He struggled for two years to make ends meet since there was no business. “But now the scenario is the same,” Neupane stated, adding, “Now Thamel is once again silent, with limits on pubs, clubs, and bars, there is rarely a customer. If another lockdown occurs again, I’m not sure what I’ll do.”
According to the Rickshaw Chalak Sangh, Kathmandu has approximately 800 rickshaw operators. Almost all rickshaw drivers, not just Neupane, are in the same dilemma.
Porters too, suffered and continue to suffer through the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout both previous locks, Ghanshyam Das, 39, a porter in the Sundhara area, and his family relied on NGOs for food.
“My life was awful,” Das expressed.
And, because of the restrictions imposed by the ongoing coronavirus problem, his daily wage income has already come to a halt. “We porters aren’t getting much work right now. I believe we are about to find ourselves in the same predicament as the previous two years,” Das expressed his dissatisfaction in a disappointed tone.
“It’s not the coronavirus that will kill us; it’ll be hunger that will kill us for sure if another lockdown happens again,” he continued. The General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) estimates that there are more than 50,000 porters in Kathmandu.
Regarding government relief, the aforementioned individuals have no hope. “In 2020, they brought a relief package just for their people. We didn’t receive any,” shared Das.
Neupane, for one, is in the same boat. In order to obtain some food packets, he had to wait for hours, but to avail relief; he needed to demonstrate documents and evidence of citizenship, which he didn’t have.
“I got nothing. I was completely shattered “Neupane shared.
According to the Federal Affairs Ministry, during last year’s lockdown, 5.7 million people from 1.8 million families received aid packages. According to the ministry, almost Rs3 billion was spent on relief last year.
As per the federal government’s relief package, each poor family with three members or more were provided 30 kilos of rice, three kilos of pulses, two kilos of salt, two litres of cooking oil, four soaps, and two kilos of sugar. Families with two members received half the amounts.
When told about the ministry’s data, the aforementioned persons responded in unison, “The data reveals how much the government provided in relief, however, we, who were in dire need of such support weren’t its recipients.”
Migrant workers fear being stranded abroad:
Not just domestic workers but migrant Nepali workers residing abroad are also constantly concerned about what would happen if another lockdown were to occur, either in Nepal or their work countries. As per government records, there are an estimated 400,000 Nepali workers in Qatar; 400,000 in Saudi Arabia; 200,000 in the United Arab Emirates; 70,000 in Kuwait; 25,000 in Bahrain; and 20,000 in Oman. Nearly 400,000 Nepalis have also been living and working in Malaysia.
Suman Dhakal, 28, who moved to Dubai to work in a plastic factory, is now traumatized by the COVID issue and its potential ramifications. “It’s only been eight months since I arrived in Dubai, yet it appears that COVID will not let me go. I’m hoping I won’t have to suffer, “he shared.
Previous lockdowns in Nepal and the Gulf regions, compounded by flight cancellations, had caused much stress on migrant workers. Tens of thousands of Nepalis who were willing to return home were stranded for lack of money to buy air tickets and clarity on repatriation modality.
Saroj Khanal is in a similar situation. Khanal, 38, is suffering an anxiety attack in Qatar: “Back in Nepal, I was unemployed, and now that I’m here, I hope to finally make a decent income, but the rising cases of coronavirus is making me uneasy”.
“I don’t want to be stranded in this town without food or money”.
Nepal is a major labour-supplying country in the South Asia region and a recipient of billions of rupees in remittances annually. However, during crises such as these, they seem to be forgotten about easily.