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Seamstress Javzmaa Namsrai works in front of scores of Mongolian Lunar New Year costumes she had hoped to sell during the annual February holiday. Following the country’s ban on public gatherings due to COVID-19, Javzmaa says she and her daughter are struggling. Nansalmaa Oyunchimeg, GPJ Mongolia
Coronavirus

Mongolian Seamstresses Face Debt, Difficult Decisions After Coronavirus Wipes Out Sales

Mongolia

When the coronavirus struck neighboring China, Mongolia was preparing for the February Lunar New Year, its biggest holiday of the year. But public events and outdoor celebrations were eventually banned, and seamstresses were stuck with shops full of clothes that nobody needed. Now they’re fighting to survive.

ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA — In a seamstress’s shop on the second floor of a building in Mongolia’s capital, pink slippers perch on the foot pedal of a sewing machine. Tailor’s scissors and measuring tape, which are usually tied to Chuluuntsetseg Chantsaldulam’s wrists, sit on a nearby table.

Almost two months after the country’s annual Lunar New Year celebrations, the men and women who provide the vivid traditional costumes and outfits for holiday revelers are far from joyous. Public gatherings and events related to this year’s holiday were canceled in February, after concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus from neighboring China led officials to secure borders, suspend public transportation and close schools. As of April 18, Mongolia had reported 31 confirmed cases, five recoveries and no deaths.

Even with the prospect of curfews and lockdowns, Chuluuntsetseg’s eight seamstresses sewed over 400 costumes for the national holiday, which ran from Feb. 24-26 this year, hoping for high demand. By late March, 350 were still hanging in her shop.

Seamstresses and tailors like Chuluuntsetseg have seen their business grind to a halt. Their dilemma is echoing through Mongolia, as small-business owners assess their losses during what is supposed to be the busiest time of year.

“Usually we get back to work within a week after celebrating the Lunar New Year,” Chuluuntsetseg says. “But I told my employees that I would not be able to pay them and sent them home.”

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Chuluuntsetseg Chantsaldulam, a seamstress with 40 years of experience, spends her days alone, sewing face masks to sell at nearby shops. Chuluuntsetseg had to send her eight employees home after more than 300 Lunar New Year costumes they produced went unsold, following the government’s ban on public gatherings due to COVID-19.

Nansalmaa Oyunchimeg, GPJ Mongolia

In a National Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey conducted in early March, nearly 90% of small-business owners said COVID-19 prevention measures had significantly affected their businesses. Almost 60% of respondents said demand for goods and services had decreased.

Tsagaan Sar, or Lunar New Year, is Mongolia’s biggest annual holiday. Workers receive three paid vacation days, and festivals, fairs and home celebrations are part of the tradition. Colorful costumes and garments made by expert seamstresses and tailors highlight the events.

Javzmaa Namsrai is a seamstress who has been sewing and selling costumes and clothes for more than two decades. The most common traditional garment is called a “deel,” which resembles a tunic or caftan.

“For the first time in my life, I have experienced being without any income like this,” Javzmaa says. “I used to sell over 100 deels during the Lunar New Year only, whereas this year I only sold three deels.”

In early February, Javzmaa paid 2.7 million Mongolian tugriks (MNT) ($969) to rent a space during a pre-Lunar New Year fair. But by the fifth day of the event, authorities had banned all exhibitions and large public gatherings. Now, Javzmaa is renting a stall with her daughter at a cost of 300,000 MNT ($108) a month. They sell deels and other clothes, along with homemade face masks.

Chuluuntsetseg’s sewing workshop alone has had an average annual revenue of 60 million to 100 million MNT ($21,550 to $36,000) in the past. But so far in 2020, the shop has taken in only 6 million MNT ($2,154). Even though her landlord has reduced rent by 50%, Chuluuntsetseg says the business has gone bankrupt.

That’s partly because Chuluuntsetseg owes 15 million MNT ($5,385) in loans.

“I borrowed money because I thought I could easily pay it off during the Lunar New Year,” she says. “I wish the state would provide us with an interest-free loan once all of this is over.”

The Central Bank of Mongolia, the country’s main financial institution, has postponed the payment of loan interest by three months and reduced interest rates from 11% to 10%.

An official with Mongolia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, says it is too soon to provide specific details about the government’s plans to support small-business owners.

But some economists caution that the damage may already be too difficult to repair.

Munkhsoyol Baatarjav, an economist and CEO at the Institute for National Strategy of Mongolia, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on economic management, believes government officials are putting too much revenue into cultural projects instead of programs that could help boost the economy.

“So much money was allocated (in the 2020 budget approved in January) for activities with low efficiency,” Munkhsoyol says, such as maintaining the national museum in honor of legendary Mongolian warrior and ruler Genghis Khan, and the construction of statues and cultural centers. “Instead, this should be allocated for small- and medium-sized enterprises and businesses by policy.”

Seamstresses like Chuluuntsetseg worry that without direct government support, they will have no choice but to close their doors permanently.

“If my eight seamstresses lose their jobs,” Chuluuntsetseg says, “their families and children will suffer.”

Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this story from Mongolian.

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