Many goldsmiths will change their profession permanently if things continue like this, the leader of a goldsmiths’ association warns
Md Mobarak found his passion for designing jewellery when he was only 14 years old. Accompanied by an uncle from his neighbourhood, in his hometown of Faridpur, he would travel to a local jewellery shop and spend time there.
Later, he came to Dhaka with another man from his neighbourhood to become a goldsmith.
It takes at least four years to become a professional goldsmith, and he has been learning for the last two years. Three months ago, he was working as an apprentice goldsmith under Papon Banik, a shroff in old Dhaka, until coronavirus broke out in the country and his lessons came to a halt.
He went back home and is currently working in a poultry farm with his father.
"My life and livelihood were in a tiny room – factory – in old Dhaka. As my shroff closed the business, I lost all reason to be there. So, I came back home and started doing what I can do to help my family," said a helpless Mobarak.
Since last month, people are trying to return to their normal life after the shutdown was lifted but Mobarak could not resume his work. His shroff has reopened business on a small scale, but has not called him in yet.
The ever-bustling narrow factory lanes of Tanti Bazar in old Dhaka remain silent. A few craftsmen living in Dhaka have come back to factories. But most of them are passing idle time, and a few doze off while waiting for customers.
Apprentice goldsmiths are taking naps, listening to music or using social media to while away time. And with furrowed eyebrows, shroffs are discussing how they will survive this pandemic.
"I have called back only one craftsman out of seven and reopened my business in case we get any order. But I have not seen a single customer, not even for welding jewellery. I have never experienced anything like this in my fifty years in the business," said Papon.
Among the few goldsmiths who are working, Giasuddin Ahmed is one. He has been in this profession for the last 10 years, and this is the first time he is without work.
Yet he comes to the factory from Keraniganj every day. The expense on commute feels like a waste of money to him. He works shirtless all day in a tiny, hot room, and keeps sweating profusely.
He keeps the fans switched off so that they do not snub the fire. Minutes after he starts work, the room smells heavier with toxic chemicals.
A jewellery catalogues are open in front of him. He is trying to make a silver neckpiece from that catalogue as practise. He is not sure whether it will find a customer.
"It does not feel good to sit idle. So, I am trying to keep myself busy. What else can I do now?" asked Giasuddin, while bending a piece of jewellery.
An expert goldsmith earns at least around Tk16,000 per month, while an apprentice makes Tk8,000. Their payment rises to Tk60,000 in the peak season, depending on the orders they complete.
Giasuddin said goldsmiths are in a financial crisis this year even though the last few months are usually the peak seasons.
Ashok Ullah, proprietor of Mishu Jewellers, said, "People are coming to market to sell jewelleries, not to buy. The number of marriages has dropped and so has the demand for jewellery items among customers."
Customers are not interested in pawning jewelleries either. Delwar Hossain, owner of Ruhi Gold House, said the number of pawned jewellery is nil.
"We thought people would be in crisis and they would pawn, but as the gold price has increased, people are more interested in selling," he said.
Enamul Haque Khan, president of Bangladesh Jewellers Samity, said that sale of gold has dropped by around 70 percent due to the pandemic, and another 10 percent because of rise in gold rate again.
"This pandemic has affected the middle-class who are our main buyers. Only they buy and order jewelleries from Bangladesh. Others go abroad," he said, adding that 80 percent of factories are closed and workers are jobless as a result.
The president of Dhaka Shorno Shilpi Sromik Songho, Ganga Charan Malakar, assumes that many goldsmiths will change their profession permanently if things continue like this.
"It might create a longtime scarcity of goldsmiths in the market if the apprentice goldsmiths lose their interest."
A huge number of goldsmiths have already changed their profession and left the country for better livelihood in the last few years. Currently, around 8,000 goldsmiths are working in more than 3,500 factories in and around old Dhaka.