'They left us behind': Expat exodus robs Afghans of income

From maids to mechanics, barbers to guards, thousands of Afghans working for foreigners have been stripped of income and opportunity after their employers fled the Taliban takeover.

The militants' rapid seizure of power has seen thousands of expatriates scrambling to escape Afghanistan – leaving a host of dependent Afghans fearing for their lives and livelihood.

Be it domestics serving diplomats, barbers tending to bureaucrats, or the cafes that relied on aid workers, a linchpin of the Afghan economy has been wiped out overnight.

Car mechanic Khairudin, who worked for a US transport company in Kabul for five years, said he was given two weeks notice that his workshop would be closing. But the speedy exit of his employers on Monday, August 16 – hours after the Taliban seized the capital – meant he was not fully paid.

"The company robbed us because we worked last month for them, but they did not pay us," said the 31-year-old, who used to earn $450 a month.

"It is not fair they left us behind. The company should help me and those who worked for them," he said.

Khairudin said he was unsure how to meet his rent or provide for his wife and four children.

Afghanistan is an aid-dependent economy, with foreign assistance making up more than 40% of the country's gross domestic product, World Bank data shows.

More than half of Afghanistan's 38 million people live on less than $1.90 a day.

There is no official data on the contribution of foreign nationals to the Afghan economy, but analysts say it has been significant, particularly in providing jobs, trade, and services.

The international community – which once included tens of thousands of troops, as well as aid workers and entrepreneurs – has been a key source of jobs for Afghans these past 20 years.

Many local businesses have also thrived by catering to foreigners – be it hotels, restaurants, cafes, or stores.

"The large expat community and Afghans based abroad were key in moving the economy and keeping it afloat. The supply and demand was going relatively well before the current exodus," said Kabul-based economist Muhibullah Sharif.

"The expats were actively buying things – sometimes even at higher prices – and used to spend a lot, paving [the] way for demand and hence creating jobs and income opportunities which resulted in national economic growth," he added.

Overnight job losses

In northwest Kabul's upmarket Shahr-e-Nau neighborhood, barber Noor Bacha said he was worried about his future as many of his customers had left the country – or were trying to.

"Our days of work are over. My clients were either government officials or foreigners visiting for work or meeting family. They were happy with my work and used to pay me well," said Bacha, who used to earn about $100 a week.

"Now I am honestly afraid that just like their past rule, the Taliban will force the hairdressing shops to close and force people to grow beards."

He said he already had removed posters of western-style haircuts from his salon, fearing a backlash from the Taliban.

Economists say the Taliban must assuage the international community to ensure foreign aid flows and sanctions avoided – key planks to avoid economic implosion.

Sharif, a former adviser to the ministry of commerce, said businesses that relied on foreign money must adapt – or die.

"They should diversify their business models, cut costs to match the demands of the local community, the Afghans who have little buying power and whose lifestyles are different in terms of buying and consuming goods and services," he said.

Saifuddin Saihoon, an economist at Kabul University, said the new government must also support people who have lost employment to prevent them crashing into poverty.

"These local civilian workers would now rely very much on the new government and private sector to absorb them in different sectors," said Saihoon.

"A large number of them have lost their jobs that helped them earn decent salaries for so long and they were supporting big and extended families," Saihoon added.

But for many Afghans, the overnight exodus, sense of abandonment, and loss of income is too much to bear.

Single mother Sheela, who cooked at an Italian restaurant in Kabul's former diplomatic quarter "the Green Zone," said she had lost a monthly income of $300 without notice.

"I came to work on Tuesday and the door of the restaurant was closed and Taliban fighters were all around. I don't know where the owner, manager, and other staff are," said Sheela, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

"I was working in this restaurant for almost nine years," she said. "I don't know what the future will be." – Rappler.com