As its name suggests, the Gandhi Ashram Trust Handloom Factory carries on the legacy of the great political leader Mahatma Gandhi. At the same time, the handloom factory is the only one of its kind in Noakhali district, creating employment opportunities for the locals, especially marginal women.
Established in 2003 in Sonaimuri upazila, under the Ashram Trust, the company soon became commercially successful, and its yearly turnover had been hovering around Tk50 lakh since 2006.
But, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the company off the track. With its annual sales falling to Tk6 lakh last year, the factory is on the verge of closing down, threatening the livelihood of its workers.
Raha Nobo Kumar, director of the Gandhi Ashram Trust, said, "Our products mainly used to go to boutique houses around the country but as Covid-19 reduced the demand in those boutique houses, our business fell at the same time," he said, adding that the factory is currently running at loss.
"In 2015, our sales were Tk50 lakh, which came down to Tk6 lakh last year. So, we are in a very delicate position," Kumar added.
The Gandhi Ashram Trust was set up in 1947 in Sonaimuri after Barrister Hemanto Kumar Ghosh, the then zamindar there, donated all his property through a trust for the promotion of Mahatma Gandhi's ideals and preservation of Gandhi's memory. The action was followed by Gandhi's visit to the area the same year.
Initially, the trust was named Ambika Kaliganga Charitable Trust but its name was changed to Gandhi Ashram Trust in 1975. The authorities set up the handloom factory in 2003 to boost the income of the local poor.
When starting out, the handloom factory had 10 women workers but the worker count soon grew to 70. With the commission-based wages, the workers earned for the number of products they made and they received an additional Tk50 for lunch. With regular wages, the financial situation of the workers improved significantly.
According to the Trust Authority, the factory that once buzzed with the whir of 26 handloom machines now only has six machines active. Some 53 workers of the factory were also laid off amid the pandemic, leaving only 17.
Ruma Akter, one of the workers, is involved with several tasks at the factory including weaving and dyeing. She said for the past 10 years, she has done this job and now if she had to lose it, she would be in quite a predicament.
Highlighting the deteriorating condition of the workers in the factory, Parveen Akter, a weaver, said, "We used to get an average of Tk400 to Tk500 a day for the amount of work we did two years ago. But now, it is difficult to get a wage of even Tk150 to Tk200 per day."
Minoti Rani Sheel, another loom worker, said the factory provided excellent employment opportunities for the underprivileged women in the upazila but now the situation has taken a turn for the worse.
But Minoti hopes the situation will get better and she is not the only one making the prayers. Individual buyers along with wholesalers who are familiar with the top-notch quality of the woven fabrics of the factory hope the factory will be able to turn the situation around. But as Covid disheveled the markets, worries linger.
Monir Hossain, a merchant at Sonaimuri fabric market, said the demand for woven products in the market was impressive even before the pandemic. "I used to sell woven garments worth Tk50,000 to Tk60,000 per month from my shop alone but the Covid-19 crippled the business," he added.
Mirupa Yasmin, the retail manager of the factory at the Gandhi Ashram Trust, who has been working at the factory since its inception said the scarcity of wholesalers is one of the main reasons the products produced in the factory could not reach the markets.
To help save the factory and many other handloom production houses across the country that are on the verge of closure, Raha Nobo Kumar of the Gandhi Ashram Trust urged the government to take necessary steps.
"To revive the industry, weavers also need to be provided with modern training and banks should issue loans in low-interest to these weavers as well," he said.