Aminul Islam used to collect waste fabrics from export-oriented apparel factories in Dhaka and Gazipur to remake and customise those for other export markets. His jackets and three-quarter trousers would find their way mainly to dime stores in neighbouring India, Nepal and Bhutan.
In a normal year, Aminul's tiny workshop used to export six lakh pieces of dresses and fetch Tk1.5 crore on an average.
But his sales nosedived last year as Covid-19 outbreak jeopardised life and businesses across the globe. "I was able to export only 50,000 jackets and three-quarter trousers last year," said Aminul.
Other apparel-makers in the garment cluster of Nilphamari's Syedpur – a north-western upazila of Bangladesh 331 kilometres from capital Dhaka – have similar stories to share.
The pandemic dealt a devastating blow to the garment hub that had been thriving on discarded fabric scraps, popularly known as "Jhut".
Slumping local and foreign demands, piled up unsold products, pricier raw material, and a poor access to government stimulus packages have already led to the closure of 350 factories of total 700 non-brand low-priced dressmakers, while the entire garment town is poised for a very slow business recovery.
"I have never seen such a business slump ever before," said Sheikh Bacchu, an apparel entrepreneur who has been in the business since 1992.
Before the pandemic, Bacchu said he had 30 employees while his annual sales would amount to Tk40-50 lakh. "In the face of mounting losses, I was compelled to shutter the production in June this year. Let alone the regular income, I now owe people Tk10 lakh," he juxtaposed the pre-Covid and post-Covid businesses.
Despite the sales dropping by 50%-60% now riding on sluggish demand, Bacchu said he wanted to restart business, but he could not due to poor access to the government's stimulus package.
"Only five of 700 entrepreneurs received low-cost loans from the stimulus package," Sahin Akter, general secretary of the local garment owners association, told The Business Standard.
Struggling to make ends meet
Roughly 2 lakh people are directly and indirectly involved in the readymade garment sector in Syedpur.
Factory closure during the virus-led lockdowns and current sluggish sales have resulted in 15,000-30,000 job cuts in the sector, according to the owners. Like the manufacturers, there are no supportive arrangements for the workers who went through the job cuts.
Take Hasmat Ali, a worker who had been making dresses at the apparel cluster for 15 years. He became jobless after his factory was closed during the pandemic.
"I used to earn Tk12,000 a month. But now I am struggling to make ends meet," said Hasmat.
"This is the only work I have learned. What would I do now? How would I manage three meals a day for my family?" he said.
Jhut turned faraway town into apparel powerhouse
The history of Syedpur's garment industry goes back to the 1970s. The apparel-makers used to make various dresses with locally collected textiles, and the production basket was limited to only a couple of items.
Since 2000, the wide availability of fabric scraps in Dhaka and its adjacent areas gave the apparel town a shot in the arm -- diversifying the product basket hugely while keeping the prices within the reach of the low-income people.
With Jhut as the main raw material, Syedpur dressmakers make shirts, T-shirts, jackets, trousers and other items.
Poor and middle income people embraced the cheap fabrics. Subsequently, wholesalers from the northern and southern districts began flocking to Syedpur for the apparel items. Small garment factories now dot New Babupara, Mistripara, Munshipara, Old Babupara, Golahat, Ghoraghat, Banshbari, Niamatpur, Kayanijpara and Nayatola of Syedpur.
In normal times, Syedpur dressmakers produce about 40 lakh pieces of jackets, shirts, T-shirts and trousers every year. But, the production fell to only 12 lakh pieces last year.
After fulfilling the local demand, the items also explored the markets of India, Nepal and Bhutan thanks to Nilphamari's proximity to those countries.
In normal times, export of the dresses would fetch Bangladesh $1.8 million annually. But, last year's export plummeted to only around $0.3 million.
Currently, all Bhutanese, Nepalese and Indian markets except West Bengal's Siliguri are off-limits to Syedpur apparel thanks to pricier fabric scraps.
With the spiralled raw materials, the apparel entrepreneurs now go back to textile fabrics. They said if Jhut supply keeps shrinking in the future, the apparel town may survive the business, but the export certainly would get hurt.
A flourishing industry hung out to dry?
Syedpur apparel-makers are self-made entrepreneurs who explored overseas markets after starting business with local non-brand shops. Until 2010, there had been almost no cash or policy support for the clothing hub that does not belong to the mainstream RMG manufacturing.
The state-run SME Foundation came upon the sector in the fiscal 2011-12, offering a Tk1.5 crore loan. The foundation put the apparel town in the SME category and also offered some training to the dressmakers.
Mohammad Akter, president of the local apparel-makers' association, said the government should take steps to aggressively publicise and market the low-priced homemade products.
"People in this sector have reached this far almost on their own. If the government nurtures it like other SMEs, centering the preparation for the 4th Industrial Revolution, it is possible to employ about 5-6 lakh people here in the next 10 years," he added.
Mofizur Rahman, managing director at the SME Foundation, admits that though the sector endured massive pandemic losses, Covid stimulus and policy supportive measures are not adequate.
Mofizur pointed the finger at banks, saying the lenders are less interested in the SMEs, which suffered the most in the pandemic.
"We can only issue a recommendation to a manufacturer for cash support. But it is the banks who actually decide to whom the Covid fund will go," he said.