Lockdown hits businesses and daily wage earners 

… many plead landlords to defer or waive rent

Choki Wangmo 

Before lockdown, Tshering, a laid-off tour guide, worked in Thimphu Thromde’s beautification project. His daily wage topped up with kidu was enough to sustain his family. But as the nationwide lockdown extends without any income source, he is at the verge of being kicked out of his house.

He tried borrowing from friends who are also laid-off workers from the hospitality sector. No one had enough. He asked his house owner to delay the house rent payment until the lockdown ends but was told to vacate the house within a week. “The owner told me to bear the penalty for late payment or vacate the flat.”

He then went around seeking help from relevant organisations like the Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB).

As the lockdown is extended to contain community transmission, many daily wage earners are worried about their livelihood.

A housewife recently wanted to borrow money from a friend. Her husband is a painter, and their savings are not enough to sustain on.

Another guide in Taba is also at the risk of being kicked out. He received text messages from his owner asking for house rent.  “I explained to him my problems and requested to delay payment until lockdown relaxes but he doesn’t want to hear anything.”

Most of the laid-off workers have taken up unskilled jobs in different sectors. Many of them said that kidu was used for paying rent while their earnings were spent on essential items. Some, however, were not eligible for kidu which is one-time during lockdown.

Another man in Changzamtog is worried since his house owner increased the rent recently. He earns Nu 12,000 but with lockdown, he has no income source. He has to pay a rent of Nu 5,000. “Kidu has helped us until now but if lockdown extends for months, we are not eligible for kidu again. I am worried.”

Without daily wages, eight construction workers are stranded at a site and their savings are running out. They were trying to return home in Phuentsholing but could not.

A labour contractor in Thimphu in the past few weeks has been feeding 21 workers stranded at a construction site in Thimphu. He spent about Nu 10,000 a week.

He said that since workers have tested negative for Covid-19, he requested the authorities to allow them to work. “It is a block work and doesn’t involve machineries. They live in an enclosed site. There is no risk.”

The request, however, had been declined. He is worried because he had to pay for the rations and not the company.

On behalf of the laid-off workers in the hospitality and entertainment sectors, GAB, on their social media page appealed to the house owners, individuals, and concerned agencies to bear with them.

“We are quite certain that they will do needful things once the situation becomes favourable,” the appeal stated.

People have suggested organisations like GAB to take initiative to raise funds to help those in need.

As living expenses, particularly house rents are increased, people are questioning the basis of lockdown. Business owners have to pay two rents—business space rent and house.

“After 25 days of stringent lockdown, there is no credible evidence that lockdown is containing the community transmission. People have psycho-socio-economic crises due to lockdown,” a man wrote on Facebook.

All house owners, however, are not the same. Some have shown sympathy towards those vulnerable in the current situation.

A tour guide Pema Dorji received a text message from his house owner in Changzamtog. He was not only told that the house rent payment had been deferred but also asked to inform the owner if he needed financial assistance. “The owner asked if I had enough essentials.”

People questioned the government’s passivity in asking the house owners to defer payment or waive off house rents since their loan interests were waived off according to the command of His Majesty The King.

“It’s high time the government has to somehow come with affordable housing for people who are desperately in need of a house to rent at affordable rate in Thimphu because most of them have no option but to relocate in Thimphu due to nature of work,” a guide wrote on social media.

“Expensive housing problems would be solved if we had a sound policy. Tenants are always at a disadvantage when landlords charge exorbitant rents. Maybe it is because most of the policy makers are house owners in Thimphu,” another wrote.

Phuentsholing 

Dhan Maya Tamang, a micro shop owner in Phuentsholing said her life has been affected badly due to low volume of sales these days.

“My highest sale of the day is about Nu 400,” she said.

But the rent for her business space is Nu 10,000 per month and she also pays another Nu 7,500 per month for a house.

“It is difficult,” she added.

Recently, during the lockdown, she had to arrange Nu 42,000 for her daughter’s school fees.

“I had to borrow it from here and there, as the school management had called,” she said.

Dhan Maya Tamang said the shop is her only source of income.

Samdrupjongkhar 

A hotelier in Samdrupjongkhar, Jigme, said their business is in total loss since the pandemic was first reported in the country as there were no customers in the town.

“I have been paying the rent for my hotel and apartment from the little I have saved from the business so far. I am worried now as the savings are exhausted,” Jigme said.

A hotelier Mahandar Singh said his hotel has been closed since April last year as there were no customers because of the pandemic. He has been paying more than Nu 40,000 a month for his hotel and apartment.

“I have paid only 50 percent rent and have more than Nu 100,000 in debt. I would be able to pay only after the border gate opens,” he said. So he is returning to India and wants to return when the situation improves.

Wangdue 

In Wangdue, Kunti Maya Pradhan has not paid rent for her shop in Lobesa, Punakha for the last two months.

“I stay in Bajo, Wangdue so I cannot go to Punakha to open the shop. It has remained closed for the last one month,” she said.

With restrictions in Wangdue, income for many small business owners has ceased.

Lachi Maya Tirwa who runs a restaurant in Bajo said that she pays Nu 13,300 as rent for shop space and for her home.

Lachi Maya Tirwa, 27, said that her husband had earlier been working in Paro. He returned home on December 18 for daily wage work in Lobesa, Punakha. “But the lockdown was announced on December 23 and he couldn’t work,” she said.

With easing of restrictions since January 6 in Wangdue, Lachi Maya Tirwa opened her shop.

However, not a single customer turned up. “I opened it again yesterday. I hardly earn Nu 250 a day.”

“The pandemic has caused us so much loss,” Kunti Maya Pradhan said.

Trongsa 

Gawa who runs a hotel in Trongsa said that his business is affected by the pandemic.

He has to pay house rent of Nu 43,000 a month, which has been difficult for him to pay the rent.

During the first lockdown, the landlord waived 30 percent, but now he has to pay the full amount.

He has been relying on the saving. He said that the income from the hotel is not enough to pay the rent and that he has to top up from his savings.

Mongar 

A hotelier in Mongar town, Kinzang Yenten, said that although there was no positive case in the dzongkhag, he couldn’t understand why businesses were restricted.

“I pay Nu 65,000 house rent for one business space and Nu 30,000 for a restaurant. I have to pay my two employees,” he said.

But there is no income source due to lockdown. “I am worried and hope lockdown opens soon.”

Meanwhile, in his Traditional Day of Offering’s wishes yesterday, the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, urged people to help and support those suffering due to the current situation.

“If you hear of a family suffering, if you’re more comfortable than your neighbours, offer to do what you can. Route through relevant persons or agencies because we are in lockdown. If you can afford, consider a discount on house rents or the price of the grocery for some families who have limited income but more members to feed,” his statement on the Prime Minister Office’s Facebook page stated.

“This is perhaps the best thing to do on a traditional day of offering. Let us leave no one behind,” he added.

Zhabto Lyonpo (Minister for Works and Human Settlement) Dorji Tshering, said that unless the landlords decide to waive off or defer house rent payment, the government did not have the authority to direct them.

Tenants, however, can lodge complaints if the landlords go against the Tenancy Act by increasing the rents unreasonably.

Additional reporting by Phub Dem, Phurpa Lhamo, Tshering Namgyal, Kelzang Wangchuk, Rajesh Rai, and Nim Dorji

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