A street vendor waits for customers at his sunglasses stall in Dhaka on July 3. Thousands of workers have left the Bangladeshi capital after losing their jobs because of Covid-19. (Photo: Munir Uz zaman/AFP)
Suma Mrong never imagined returning to her village home could be so painful and frustrating after working in Dhaka for 11 years.
Mrong, 28, an ethnic Garo Catholic from Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Jalchatra, Tangain district, is the eldest of five children. Her father, a daily wager, has always struggled to maintain the family.
The church is under Mymensingh Diocese that has over 81,000 predominantly ethnic indigenous Catholics, mostly Garo people.
To help her poor family, Mrong moved to the capital in 2009. After a three-month course in beauty services, she found a job in Dhaka’s thriving beauty industry. Her latest job in a salon earned her 20,000 taka (US$236) a month, of which she sent about half to her family back home.
Mrong’s world turned upside down when Covid-19 hit Bangladesh and the salon closed indefinitely from March 26 as the government declared a nationwide shutdown. She waited for one month to see whether the situation improved but left Dhaka empty-handed at the end of April.
“No job, no income. Life started becoming tough, and I decided to leave Dhaka as I could no longer afford the rent. I feel sad as my family depended on me and I am unable to do anything for them now,” Mrong told UCA News.
Her beauty salon had 25 staff including seven Garo girls like her, but all are jobless now. “We have been told that when the situation gets better, we will be called back to work. There is no indication the salon can reopen soon,” she lamented.
To make things worse for the family, Mrong’s elderly father died in June following a heart attack.
At home Mrong helps her mother with domestic chores as she does not have any other vocational skills. Her two brothers have been supporting the family by working as daily wagers.
The Catholic Church offered Covid-19 food aid to some 800 poor families, but Mrong’s family were not among them.
The only aid she received was 2,000 taka from the Indigenous Peoples Development Services, a Dhaka-based social action group for ethnic minority communities.
“I am very upset right now. I can only hope and pray that this crisis is over soon,” Mrong added.
Job cuts hit millions
According to the Bangladesh Economic Association, about 36 million people, mostly from the informal sector, have lost their jobs since March 8 when the first three cases of Covid-19 were detected in the country.
Moreover, about 60 million have been displaced from the existing class structure, of which about 26 million have become extremely poor, it noted.
In June, the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, a think tank, reported unemployment had reached 13 percent, an all-time high in this South Asian nation of more than 160 million.
Like Mrong, about 4,000 Garo women employed in the beauty industry in Dhaka and industrial cities including Chittagong, Gazipur and Narayanganj have become jobless, according to Protap Rema, coordinator of Nokmandi Garo Community Center, a Garo welfare group in Dhaka.
Besides, 114 Garo women entrepreneurs in Dhaka and 16 in Chittagong who run beauty salon businesses have completely lost their income, he said, adding that more than 2,000 jobless Garo women have already left cities due to their inability to pay rent and other expenses.
The Garo are a matrilineal Mongoloid ethnic group living in Bangladesh and India. More than 90 percent of Garo in Bangladesh are Christians, mostly Catholics.
Like Mrong, hundreds of Christians from major cities have joined an exodus of thousands of jobless migrants returning to their villages.
No definitive data is available but local media reported that at least 50,000 residents of Dhaka and a similar number in the port city of Chittagong have left with their families and their belongings.
Hairdresser returns home
Ananda Mondol, 27, a Catholic from St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Satkhira district under Khulna Diocese, also left Dhaka at the end of March.
Mondol used to be a hairdresser in a men’s salon in the city until it closed down due to the pandemic. His monthly income ranged from 6,000 to 7,000 taka, of which he sent one third to his family in his village home — his elderly mother, wife and seven-year-old daughter.
“I am the only son. All my four sisters have been married off. My family relies on my income completely,” Mondol told UCA News.
His late father was a day laborer and the family have always been poor. Mondol was able to study up to grade five. As he grew up, he also worked as a daily laborer and later learned hairdressing.
Two years ago, he moved to Dhaka for better income. In the village he could earn about 100 taka a day, while in Dhaka his daily income was 250 taka.
“The salon closed down at the end of March after the government declared a nationwide shutdown. I returned home nearly empty-handed. Then we were struck by Cyclone Amphan and it left our only house in ruins. I managed to erect a makeshift tent where we have been living,” he said.
Mondol is not sure if he can go back to Dhaka again, so he joined a local salon to make ends meet.
His family has not received any government or NGO aid for Covid-19. Only once, after Amphan, he received a food package with 5kg rice, 2kg lentils and two liters of oil, which was provided by Caritas and Khulna Diocese to 145 cyclone-affected families.
“If cannot go back to Dhaka anymore, I have a plan to open a small salon with help from a local NGO to run the family better,” he added.
Aid for the poor
Catholic and Protestant churches and groups have been supporting poor and low-income people to the best of their ability.
“All eight dioceses as well as eight regional Caritas offices have offered cash and food aid to people in their respective areas. At parish-level churches have arranged food aid to hundreds of poor people,” Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, told UCA News.
Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh has given cash handouts worth 64.6 million taka (US$761,000) to 24,898 families and food aid to 8,095 families, according to its latest Covid-19 bulletin.
World Vision Bangladesh, a Christian charity group, distributed cash totaling 65 million taka to 18,664 families, according to a press release.
Meanwhile, the government provided food aid and 2,500 taka to 50,000 extremely poor families during the Covid-19 crisis.
“Catholic dioceses as well as Caritas need to think about how to support jobless migrants as the pandemic lingers,” Father Gomes added.