The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the many crises Afghanistan found itself in 2020. The country’s dramatically low testing capacity and lack of data on overall demographics and infections, makes it difficult to predict when the spread of the virus could be contained, and the subsequent health crisis mitigated. So far, nearly 50,000 Afghans had been infected according to official numbers whereas other sources claim that there is hardly an Afghan family that did not experience a member contracting the virus.
How has the pandemic affected the situation of workers, employers and authorities – directly and indirectly?
What we do know, however, is that the pandemic has already wreaked havoc on Afghanistan’s economy and societal wellbeing. Lockdowns and border closures have stagnated economic activities especially in employment-intensive businesses as industry and services. In addition to thousands of breadwinners out of work and families facing declined incomes and remittances, food prices have surged, and poverty rate estimates reach as high as 90 % of the population. Due to reduced trade, declining economic output and administrative disruptions, public revenues fell substantially. The steep increase of returnees and internally displaced people add additional pressure on employment opportunities especially in urban centres.
Upholding and expanding labour standards in such a crisis might be challenging, yet of key importance for a sustainable and equitable recovery. Enhanced social dialogue is needed both for reconstruction and resilience towards future crisis, safeguard and create job opportunities, and ensure economic, social, and human development. This is especially the case in vulnerable communities like many in Afghanistan.
What are the strategies/instruments social dialogue partners could implement to mitigate the crisis?
To help Afghan and international stakeholders to identify meaningful steps towards a sustainable recovery, FES and National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees (NUAWE) held a series of roundtables and trainings in several provinces to:
The western Herat province borders Iran and Turkmenistan and had been the first area to be affected by the pandemic - many participants issued the complaint that if Kabul had paid more attention to the situation here in early 2020, the spread of COVI-19 could have been contained easier. The lack of medical and financial support from Kabul undermined efforts by local authorities to regulate prices for food and medicine when they increased respectively. At times, however, private companies and businesses managed to help out. Initiatives by the central government were often seen as ineffective, at times compromised by corruption, and failed to reach people in need.
Due to the lack of urbanization in Herat, the vast majority of the population lives in rural areas and economic activity is heavily reliant on agriculture and horticulture production. According to the Afghan Chamber of Commerce, some 40 factories in Herat City had to close down permanently after the lockdown, with devastating consequences for hundreds of employees but also vendors and service providers to them. Those, who were lucky to keep their jobs, reported of low awareness for work hours or even breaks and of only little efforts by the government to incentivise the private sector accordingly.
The pandemic also had an impact on the security situation in the province. Returnees from Iran, pressured by Iranian authorities, out of jobs or without access to Iranian health facilities, but also internally displaced people from border areas found themselves without support or opportunities provided by the government and local residents tied this situation to an increase in crime and insecurity. Beyond an increase of domestic violence, returnees at times also proved vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment efforts by armed opposition groups.
Bamyan is located in the central highlands of Afghanistan and estimated to be one of the areas less affected by violence. Hence, participants emphasized the economic impact of the pandemic rather than security issues. While the number of cases had been initially lower in Bamyan than in other provinces, its predominantly agricultural economy was hit hard by transport disruptions and the lockdown. Local farmers reported of impeded sales of milk to Kabul as well as instances where animals had to be sold over at a cheaper price.
Just as in the construction sector, which employs many local daily wagers, food production was slowed down due to transport interruptions and many producers had problems getting loans to replace spoiled materials. Women and families were also impacted by the dramatic decline of remittances as breadwinners returned from Iran without any government support and both instances of domestic violence and child labor - to generate additional income and reduce costs at home - increased.
Balkh Province serves as Afghanistan’s main gateway to Central Asia countries, has immense geo-strategic importance and is a hub of commercial and political activities. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was low awareness among people and reluctance to follow any quarantine or lockdown orders or even seek medical advice, partially as patients feared discrimination. As protracted internal displacement and returns from Pakistan and Iran increased the socio-economic burden especially on the provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif, border closures with Uzbekistan made local stakeholders even more aware of Afghanistan's dependency on food imports and of the need to enhanced self-reliance.
According to the Afghan Chamber ofCommerce, out of the 400 factories operating in Balkh before the pandemic, only one tenth reopened without problems - the vast majority faces the risk of bankruptcy. The situation was particularly difficult for women-led businesses, which had trouble repaying loans to the bank due to disruptions and now fear being fined and having their assets confiscated. While the central bank helped to prevent the worst, women are still under pressure to repay loans (+18% interest) back in time.
In Kandahar, a chief commercial center in the south of Afghanistan and an agricultural area known for having well-irrigated gardens and orchards, discussants reported that the lockdown and other economic consequences of the pandemic had hit both the private sector and workers hard.
Prior to the pandemic, laborers from nine adjacent provinces came to Kandahar to benefit from relatively better security conditions and opportunities. Many of them found themselves out of work - just as the auxiliary workers that used to work on demand in local factories. At the same time, factories that did successfully adjusted, e.g. to tailoring masks, faced labor shortages as many female employees could not leave their houses due to concerns over health safety. Border closures, returning breadwinners, and the subsequent reduction of remittances and incomes added to tensions in the household and instances of domestic violence increased.
The government's response to the crisis was seen critical by local authorities, who complained that much needed medical and economic support did not arrive in time and efforts to increase trust among the public by conducting a proper needs assessment for assistance were undermined by Kabul's impatience to distribute goods quickly. Media organizations emphasized a lack of reliable information from officials, difficulties to access areas under Taliban control and the fact that many awareness campains failed to reach or convince the local population.
The findings of the project and the final report were presented in Kabul and the issues at hand discussed by Mr. Abdul Karim Hashimi, Deputy Minister for Labour (MoLSA), Mrs. Negina Yari, Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan Peace House, Mrs. Spowzhmai Wardak, Deputy Minister for Technical & Policy (Ministry of Women Affairs), Mr. Maroof Qaderi, President of National Union of Afghanistan Workers and Employees, Mrs. Afsana Rahimi, Chairperson of Afghan Women Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Dr. Tariq Ahmad Akbari, Director of the Afghan-Japan Hospital and Mr. Matiullah Rahmati, Director/Founder of Bright Point Consultancy. The event was moderated by Mr. Mujeeb Khalvatgar, Director of Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan and APG member.