Petty traders staring at ruin as Covid-19, MCO lay waste to businesses

Jerry Choong
A general view of the Kuala Lumpur Wholesale Market as traders resumed business after the enhanced movement control order on the area was lifted on May 13, 2020. — Pictures by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, June 1 — The extended nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) since March 18 hurt most businesses badly but has been particularly devastating to small-time businesses, petty traders and hawkers.

Despite slowly resuming business following the loosening of restrictions in April, many of their regular patrons have been equally slow to return. This, in turn, has decimated their revenue sources and made it hard for many to keep operating.

While the government has introduced a conditional movement control order (CMCO) in which most businesses were allowed to resume operations, the accompanying standard operating procedures (SOPs) along with weak consumer sentiments meant shoppers remained few and far between.

Malaysian Federation of Hawkers and Petty Traders Association president Datuk Seri Rosli Sulaiman said many petty traders now faced a bleak future after years of building up their trade.

“The MCO has been especially hard for those young traders who are starting out their businesses. In addition to running costs, they also have to factor in other things like car or house obligations, so it is likely they cannot survive if things continue as they are,” he told Malay Mail.

Traders at the Kuala Lumpur Wholesale Market resumed business after the enhanced movement control order on the area was lifted on May 13, 2020.

Although Rosli said he personally felt it was too early to determine how many will go out of business, he said his association will monitor their members' condition from time to time.

“If anything, the practice of hiring foreigners as staff during the pandemic has also been indicative that it is more detrimental than beneficial. Say, a married couple who used to have foreign help now find it difficult to run things on their own.

“Nowadays we encourage businesses to take on local employees instead, though it remains to be seen how things will improve. Many of our members have also reported low customer turnout and general economic instability as impacting them directly,” he said.

Rosli said the federation will also speak with their members' local authorities and municipal councils to see if anything can be done to help reduce their business burdens during this trying time.

“A major obstacle for petty traders and hawkers is the increasing price of goods, as they themselves are reluctant to pass it onto customers for fear of losing their base. This is why it is necessary for the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry to keep a closer eye on price of goods.

“Additionally members have noted that the adherence to social distancing when outside of home, while a good thing, may have also led to the mindset of rather not going out if at all possible, which would explain the drop in customers despite the MCO being loosened,” he said.

Indian Petty Traders Association of Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya president A. Joty, with 35 years of experience under his belt, said this was the first time that he has seen business conditions this bleak, surpassing even the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

“On average, depending on the business type, a trader could expect to make anywhere between RM1,000 to RM5,000 a month before the MCO began. But in the first month alone their revenue has gone down by 30 per cent to as much as 50 per cent.

“It is fortunate that the moratorium on loans came to be, at least without having to pay their obligations during this time, many of my association members can scrape by. But it will not be surprising that were the MCO to be extended, some will end up going out of business,” he said.

Similar to Rosli, Joty said survivability depended on the type of business the traders operate, and if they were forced to close down due to the MCO. His association members are mostly food court stall operators followed by street traders.

“Some are doing alright since they have family members who have other sources of income. But there are those whose entire livelihoods are dependent on this.

Pasar Borong Harian Selayang market traders were told to cease operations on April 21, 2020.

“Although it was brought up, many of our members have expressed no interest in going online, simply because they prefer doing business in person and also because past instances of fraud and deceit have made them wary,” he said.

The biggest lament from Joty's members has been the considerable drop in customers since the MCO began. He explained that for the food court stall operators, most of their existing clientele are foreign workers.

“All of us support measures like social distancing as it is a matter of health over wealth. But in the first few weeks of the MCO we realised that requiring people to register their details before coming in made foreign workers shy away from patronising the businesses.

“Even locals who used to come by to purchase takeaway are now scared to do so. They are not the only ones. If I were not association president I would not be out and about, and members have told me they would rather just stay at home if their incomes did not depend on this,”

On their part, Joty's association has also begun taking steps to alleviate its members' burdens, such as providing a monthly stipend to select traders for the MCO.

“The Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) has waived off licence renewals and rental payments for the time being, which we are thankful for. They also provided a sum of RM500 for licensed small businesses and petty traders in the city, but not all have been able to get it.

“So we are aiming to also do the same for those who were unable to get the sum, so far all we are waiting for is DBKL's approval. I am concerned that traders will continue to suffer if the approval is delayed,” he said.

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