Abul Hasem is a daily labourer at a hosiery factory in Pabna. But only last year, he had been the proud owner of his own hosiery factory -- Suvo-Shorob hosiery factory -- in the same region.
As the Covid-19 wreaked havoc on lives and livelihoods, Hasem, who had owned his factory since 1982, became one of the virus's many unwitting victims.
Earlier, he had collected waste (jhut) fabrics from export-oriented apparel factories in Dhaka and Gazipur, Narayanganj to transform those into end products for other export markets. Usually, he used to make sleeveless undershirts, t-shirts, and women's trousers in the factory to market to India, Malaysia and countries in the Middle-East and Europe.
During normal circumstances, Abul Hasem's factory -- employing 25 weavers -- used to export 50 lakh pieces of dresses and fetch Tk30 lakh on average.
But amid Covid-19, Hasem eventually had to quit the market last year.
"I was not able to export a single piece of sleeveless undershirt, t-shirt or women's trousers last year. I lost all my capital amid the pandemic; I owe Tk3 lakhs in wages and other maintenance costs. I have not received any government stimulus. Now I am a day labourer for another hosiery factory to survive with my family," said Hasem.
Apart from factory owners, workers in the industry have also taken an unexpected hit.
Asraful Islam worked as a weaver in Pabna Hosiery Textile for 10 years. He became jobless after the factory shut during the pandemic.
"I used to earn Tk14,000 a month. Now I am struggling to make ends meet. This is the only work I have learned; I have not learned any other work in my life," he said.
An all too familiar tale
The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the garment hub in Pabna, which had been thriving on discarded fabric scraps, popularly known as jhut.
Falling demand, pricier raw materials, and no government stimulus packages have already led to the closure of 1,700 factories out of 4,000 non-brand low-priced dressmakers.
According to Pabna Hosiery Manufacturers Group, there were more than 2 lakh people directly and indirectly involved in this sector. Of 60,0000 weavers in the sector, 50% have lost their jobs or quit altogether and changed their profession.
Furthermore, annual earnings have dropped to Tk200 crores from the previous year's Tk500 crore. Nearly 95% of the loom industry traders now have bank loans and sales have dropped about 40-50%.
Saddam Hossain, owner of SM Traders Factory, has been in the business since 2008. He told TBS that before Covid-19, he used to export about 50,000 pieces of t-shirts to India worth Tk1 crore a year. Last year, he had to shut down his factory.
''I lost all my capital. My debt of Tk13 lakh had to be paid by selling my father's land. I have not received any SME incentives. Now I want to restart my factory again, but no help is available from anyone," he said.
It's all doom and gloom, but such a situation has caught everyone unawares.
Muklesur Rahman Jitu, an entrepreneur who has been engaged in the apparel sector since 1999, said, "I have never seen such a business nose-dive ever before."
Before the pandemic, Jitu said he had 400 employees, with annual sales amounting to Tk25 crore per year.
"In the face of mounting losses, now I have only 220 workers. I was compelled to shutter the production in June with sales of only Tk14 crore this year."
"I went from selling 40 lakh pieces of t-shirts annually to only 25 lakh pieces last year. Right now, I am not seeing a good hope for this export market," he said.
"The rising price of garment waste has also become a real concern area for small manufacturers as each kilogramme of jhut, which sold for Tk70 to Tk90 a couple of years ago, now cost around Tk130 to Tk150," Jitu added.
A historic industry in need of help
The story of Pabna's hosiery industry goes back to the British era. Later, West Pakistani business groups such as Adamjee came to this district to engage in the hosiery trade.
They would manufacture yarn and sell it to local hosiery units, mostly the cottage industries; but the poor road infrastructure and costly transportation forced the yarn makers and hosiery businesses to shift to Narayanganj and other districts.
Jhut from the ready-made garments industry had given new vitality to the hosieries of Pabna, which had lost their shine in the 1990s.
Before the pandemic, the hosiery industry boom had created job opportunities, especially for low-income groups and female workers of the area. Now, however, the future is uncertain.
Monir Hossain Popy, president of the Pabna Hosiery Manufacturers Group, said, "The government should pull this sector out of the slump and ensure that incentives reach the affected entrepreneurs.
"They should also arrange low-interest and unsecured bank loans for the hosiery industry. Furthermore, the government should take steps to aggressively publicise and market these products at home and abroad," he said.
"People in this sector have gotten this far almost exclusively on their own. It is possible to employ about 5-6 lakh people in the next 10 years in the industry," he continued.
"It will also pave the way for the economic emancipation of the country's destitute, helpless, and unemployed women."
Barik Hossen Jony, former president of the Pabna Hosiery Manufacturers Group, said, "The booming business was devastated due to the pandemic and our sales were very low this last year. No affected factory owner has received any incentives from the government. Entrepreneurs in this sector are helpless and hardly able to manage wages, salaries, rent, and bank loans."
Contacted, SME Foundation Managing Director Md Mofizur Rahman said, "The sector has really suffered a lot amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The entrepreneurs did not receive any incentives in the first phase as we could not contact them on time.
"However, this sector has been included in a plan for distribution of Tk200 crore in incentives this fiscal year," he said.