He knew what he dreaded most was going to happen.
The lockdown in Kathmandu had gone on for two weeks and Bikas Tamang, 21, was hoping businesses would reopen. Then the lockdown was extended for another 15 days, and he lost his job as a waiter.
He had hoped to pay off the loan he had taken while rebuilding his two-room house, which collapsed during the 2015 earthquake.
As a poor migrant worker Bikas now lives on the margins of poverty, scrambling to find odds jobs. In that frantic hunt to find any work, he is one among tens of thousands of informal sector workers who have lost their jobs and are struggling to stave off hunger and poverty.
Nepal’s informal sector employs nearly 62 percent of its total labour force, nearly 4.4 million people. They have been joined by thousands more who are returning home from places like India and the Middle East, driven out of work by the devastating impact of COVID-19.
Even before the pandemic struck. Bikas’s life was difficult. Six years ago, he lost his father to disease. Shortly after, his mother married again, abandoning him with his two ailing grandparents. Then when the 2015 earthquake struck, it killed both his grandparents, leaving him with his pregnant wife, whom he had married only two years prior. With few options for work in the village, he left her behind to look for work.
For a young man coming from the historically marginalized Tamang ethnic community, there was no option but to head to the capital Kathmandu. He was making about US$75 a month working 14 hour days in a restaurant when the pandemic forced him to return home.
“I had to come back. I had no choice,” he says.
He is among the fortunate to find short-term employment in his village, following nearly two months of lockdown. He was among 50 vulnerable people selected by the local government for a road building project.
“I had given up hope. I am glad that I got something to do in my own village,” he says. “For now, this is a great relief.”
Bikas and 49 of his fellow villagers, have been hard at work constructing a road which connects the village to a newly-built medical clinic. Each labourer earns US$7 per day.
The impressive stretch of work has given the municipality ideas to improve other rural roads, while at the same time creating short-term jobs for unemployed villagers.
According to a recent study commissioned by UNDP, three out of five employees in small business have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown.
These businesses have seen monthly revenue fall by an average of 95 percent. Most shut down within the first three months of the lockdown. The agriculture sector, which employs over 80 percent of the working population, has also been severely impacted by the lockdown.
Indramaya Tamang, 35, is also helping to build the road. A single mother of two, who lost her husband to tuberculosis a year ago, says there are hardly any labouring jobs, especially for women.
“They don’t hire women. They think we cannot work hard,” she says. “The private contractors pick only the strong males. We rarely get any opportunity. We are so glad that the ward chair gave this opportunity to the poorest people like us.”
Baburam Lama is the ward chair of the Indrawati Rural Municipality. He knows each of the 50 workers he has hired and keeps monitoring the progress of the project co-funded by UNDP, and the Prime Minister’s Employment Programme.
Launched in June, UNDP’s livelihoods recovery programme, co-funded by the Royal Thai Government, aims to engage more than 5,000 women and men — especially the poor, vulnerable daily wage earners and migrant workers in short-term manual works through small-scale community and tourism infrastructure projects co-financed by the government and led by the communities themselves.
“The beauty of this programme is that all the money we are investing goes directly to the poor people. We have given priority to the most vulnerable people, as they are the ones who feel the first blow,” he says. “We have not even used any machines here, except for the push carts. From stones and tools to skills and engineering, everything is local. We don’t use cement or iron rods.”
UNDP’s latest study warns that if no concrete measures are taken, the COVID-19 crisis may exacerbate pre-existing inequalities pushing a significant number of people back into poverty. The study recommends the government strengthen social protection and livelihoods, reorient public finance to augment human capabilities, introduce measures to limit bankruptcies and create new sources of job-creating growth.
“We at UNDP are keen to partner with municipalities for a shared purpose, to create jobs for people struggling to cope with the social and economic stress of the current situation, due to COVID-19. A decent income will help these men and women make ends meet, using the opportunities at hand. And most importantly it will help them maintain their dignity,” said UNDP Resident Representative in Nepal Ayshanie Medagangoda Labe.
Story and photos by UNDP Nepal/Kamal Raj Sigdel. Video by Shrutina Dhanchha, Amit Bista and Shahin Sunuwar Rasaili.