When Nepal was hit by the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, anxiousness engulfed the corporate sector like other walks of society that weren’t ready to face the unprecedented crisis for the next one and a half years. As the government enforced nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus, economic activities came to a grinding halt, and businesses and organizations closed their offices and factories.
The uncertainty surrounding the worldwide public health emergency in terms of how long it will go, what will it take to control it, health safety measures, and treatment to Covid-19 patients, pushed the government institutions as well as the private sector to prioritize the safety of employees and workers.
However, the lockdown which was enforced without proper contingency and exit plan adversely impacted the economy, businesses, and jobs. As organizations resorted to layoffs, salary cuts, and other cost-cutting measures to face the massive financial strains, it created turbulence in the employer-employee dynamics. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was such that it started the biggest employment crisis in the history of Nepal.
Travel and tourism, hospitality, and aviation were hit the hardest and the prospect of recovery of these sectors is still grim when normalcy has returned to most other sectors.
According to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimate, 1.6 to 2.0 million Nepali jobs were disrupted by the pandemic resulting in reduced working hours, decreased wages, and loss of employment. Only 15 percent of employed people were protected by social security programs before the pandemic, which has further pushed a large number of the working population to unemployment.
As the economic engine of the country halted suddenly, organizations stopped new hirings and their expansion and other plans were put on hold. In a bid to sustain operations, the majority of the employers adopted measures such as deduction of working hours, curtailing allowances, converting full-time employment to part-time employment, and enforcing unpaid leaves.
“Every company panicked after the lockdown was enforced and there was a sense of big uncertainty. In the first year of the pandemic, both employees and their employers bear the brunt of the crisis,” said Sudarshan Pathak, HR Head at IME Automotives.
According to Anand Bagaria, Managing Director of Nimbus Holdings, employment is one of the biggest challenges the country’s private sector faced after the start of the pandemic. “Initially, there was a sense of insecurity at the employee level, especially about the future of their jobs. At the management level, we were also in a big dilemma on what steps should be taken,” he said. “Given the uncertainty, the management had to think long-term prospects. This forced us (Nimbus) to cut the salary of our employees for few months. Once the situation returned to normalcy, payrolls were reinstated.”
According to World Bank’s Nepal Development Update, there were widespread losses in jobs and income. The World Bank Covid-19 Monitoring Survey said more than two in every five economically active workers reported a job loss or a prolonged work absence in 2020. “An estimated 44 percent of all workers who were economically active at any point in 2020 experienced a loss in effective employment and 25 percent of the economically active population lost their jobs,” the report stated. In addition, 19 percent reported a prolonged absence, with an average absence of 4.4 months and a gap of 4 months since they were last paid. More women reported permanent job losses (30 percent compared to 23 percent for male workers).
A recent report by Joint Trade Union Coordination Committee (JTUCC) says hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers, mainly those in informal sectors and MSMEs without social security coverages, lost their jobs and income as a consequence of the pandemic.
According to a report of the National Planning Commission, 708,000 individuals have lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently due to Covid-19 in Nepal. “Given that the MSMEs and informal sectors which employ the majority of workers in Nepal were hit hardest the majority of workers lost jobs in these sectors,” states the JTUCC report.
[blockquote align=”none” author=”Albert Camus”]You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.[/blockquote]
GETTING INTO WORK-FROM-HOME (WFH) MODE
After the pandemic disrupted the normal work environment, remote working emerged as the most viable alternative for organizations globally. Though there were some confusions during the initial days of the pandemic, WFH, which was already in practice in the Western hemisphere, gained prominence among Nepali employers and employees quickly. While employees have generally returned to their workplaces after the government ended lockdowns and other restrictions, many organizations, particularly NGOs/INGOs, news media and tech companies have allowed their staff to continue working from home. This has led to the rise of remote communications as meetings are being conducted via platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, WhatsApp, and Viber.
Top executives say the WFH modality helped to reduce the impacts of Covid-19 on the operation of their organizations. “When the first lockdown was enforced, it was challenging to manage the organization, not only in terms of operation but also in terms of health safety of staff. Hence, we allowed people to work from home,” said Sashin Joshi, Group Executive Director of Jawalakhel Group of Industries (JGI).
Sudarshan Pathak, HR chief at IME Automotives said, “If there was no Covid-19 pandemic, nobody would have thought about WFH. “This is a major learning for us.” “Now, we can outsource certain functions of office which will save time and money for the organization.” According to Pathak, IME Automotives adopted the WFH modality fully during the second lockdown. “For two months, we completely ran our office and system from home. And, the good thing is, it didn’t affect our overall efficiency. The results were much better than what we’d anticipated,” he said.
Euden Koirala, Head of People and Organisation Development at Water Aidity from employees—with some saying it has increased productivity of employees, while others say there has been a decrease in productivity.
As said by Koirala, the WTH has both merits and demerits. The flexible work schedules have been appreciated by the employees. At the same time, this new shift in working culture means there is a lack of distinct demarcation between office work and normal life.
And, there are some logistics issues that the employers had to face, i.e., having the resources (technology and equipment) required for remote working, adequate workspace at home, and being able to complete the job without interruptions. While WFH modality has been particularly easy for male employees, female staff say it has been difficult for them, as they have to balance office duties and daily chores at home.
CARING AND SHARING
As health safety has become the major concern in workplaces, organizations have spent sizeable resources on to well-being of their staff. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in Nepal has also paved the path for implementing health and safety protocols in organizations in Nepal.
As the second wave of the pandemic proved much severe than the first wave, many banks and other corporate organizations deployed a medical support system for their employees and their family members for online consultation. “As some of our staffs got infected with Covid-19, we hired a team of doctors for online consultation and medication. We also ran a program for the psychological wellbeing of our staff,” informed Pathak.
According to Joshi, the first thing JGI did was, to ensure every staff of the company are safe and secure. “We appointed people who are specially assigned to look after and enquire about our staff on a daily basis. Every department head was asked to check all the staffs every day,” said Joshi. “It created a mutual support system within the organization. During the second wave, employers were a little bit more anxious, so we also had Zoom sessions for staff on how to manage stress.”
The pandemic has encouraged more Nepali businesses to adopt digitalization to cash in on business opportunities. The report ‘Covid-19 Nepal Business Pulse Survey’ has shown a fifth of businesses surveyed started to use or have been using the internet, social media, specialized apps, or digital platforms for business purposes.
Covid-19 has catalyzed the shift towards digital and contactless payments, as consumers shift a greater share of their purchases only due to fear of paper money being contagious.
According to Bagaria, his organization invested a lot in technology which has become very productive. “These days, I meet key people of my organizations every week for two hours face to face on zoom. Communication and information sharing has become stronger,” he shared.
Pathak said companies have also digitized their work culture. “An automobile company like ours started online sales appointments, the office meetings were held virtually through zoom. Except for vehicle delivery, everything was done virtually during this period,” he said.
NEW HIRING IS BACK
Organizations that have stopped expansion plans and hiring in wake of the pandemic have now slowly opened new hiring. BFIs have started opening new vacancies as well as expanding new branches.
According to Pathak, IME Automotives had stopped hiring for some time due to the rapid spread of the pandemic in 2020. With vaccination getting pace, the company’s expansion plan is back to normal so is the new hiring. “As the situation has improved, our expansion plan is back,” said Pathak.
According to Bagaria, there was a major hit in Nimbus’s expansion plans as every project got delayed by a year. “Fortunately for us (private sector), the last fiscal year’s monetary policy offered a breathing space. This helped us keep the projects running,” he said.
Nimbus which stopped hiring during the first wave of the pandemic has restarted hiring in the last two months. “But we are struggling to find the right talent now. This issue is not seen at the workers level, but at the mid-level or managerial level,” said Bagaria.
According to Joshi, JGI had a setback on the launch of new products due to the pandemic. “We had many plans to had to put them on the back burner,” said Joshi. “Despite all the problems, we did not resort to staff retrenchment. In case of new hiring, we are hiring in the areas where new staffs are required.”