Bhutanese Construction workers face an uncertain fate as labour imports open up

The Bhutanese laborers who have gained skills working in the construction industry, especially in the last two years, now stand to face stiff competition from the influx of foreign skilled workers, as the country has allowed importation of foreign laborers.

Almost all contractors prefer hiring Indian workers as it has obvious cost benefits.

The proprietor of YC Construction, Rinchen, said, “Not only are the Indian laborers cheaper, they are also more experienced and skilled. Bhutanese laborers are lacking in skills, whether in metal works or masonry works. I hired around 12-13 Bhutanese skilled workers to work on a construction project quite recently, but the progress of the work has been very painful to watch. Bhutanese workers aren’t as efficient and they just come and go as they please. Some take additional loans from me and then don’t show up at work.”

He added that most Bhutanese workers are unwilling to accept their mistakes or accept an honest feedback.

Rinchen has signed up for the importation of a group of Indian laborers including a supervisor. He will be paying Nu 700 per day to the Indian laborer while a Bhutanese laborer can cost up to Nu 1,000 per day. Similarly, a skilled Indian mason charges around Nu 800-900 per day while a skilled Bhutanese mason can charge up to Nu 1,500.

Regarding availability of Bhutanese laborers in the market, they have been found to be abundant, according to contractors.

A contractor from Tshering Construction, Sonam Chogyal, said that he prefers Indian laborers, not only on the grounds of cost factor, but also due to skills factor.

“When it comes to Bhutanese workers, the supervisor, engineer and I have to be on the field all the time and give them detailed instructions on what to do. But it is a different case for Indian laborers. They know the construction work like the back of their hands which makes the whole process much easier,” Sonam said.

However, he said that he completed a whole construction project using only 40 Bhutanese workers amidst the pandemic and so he plans to hire both Indian and Bhutanese laborers, in case foreign laborers have to be sent back if COVID-19 restrictions are imposed again.

 Ugyen Yoezer of Namgay Construction said, “Regarding the quality of work and skills, I feel there is a small marginal gap between the two, but there is a noticeable difference in terms of progress of work. Adding the cost factor, we know who our clear cut winner is. But no, just because I prefer Indian workers, I am not going to terminate my Bhutanese workers. In fact, I plan to keep working with the same team of Bhutanese laborers that I have been working with and that I know well. Moreover, there is uncertainty factor with the Indian laborers, in case of another lockdown or restriction, they will have to go back to their country, so no thanks to that.”

Labour Minister’s take

According to the Labour and Human Resources Minister Karma Dorji, many construction and government projects were halted due to lack of workers in the country. Therefore, the foreign laborers have to be hired.

“We have to consider factors like, how many Bhutanese are willing to work in the construction sector? What kind of skills do they have? Their availability in the market, cost factor etc., so considering the above points, we have to allow the foreign workers,” Lyonpo added.

Lyonpo said that hiring of Bhutanese workers will depend on the contractors who are looking for quality, skilling, expertise and most importantly the cost factor, especially now that both are available in the market.

The Labour Ministry does not control the cost of labour since the foreign workers can demand their own wage and local workers can do so as well.

“Our control is only on giving the required skills, which we have been providing in consultation with the employer. That’s the best the ministry can do. In upskilling, we have been spending money, we have been announcing training, we have been meeting with employers and asking them what kind of skills they require and what kinds of skills are short in the market,” said the Lyonpo, further adding, “If the contractors say they need particular skills, we will provide it and if they say they need support from specialized firms, we have created 43 specialized firms, who are experts in plumbing, electrical, etc., but we cannot force  people to hire.”

Regarding Bhutanese working in construction sector, the ministry has trained about 1,300 individuals in various fields via Build Bhutan Project like plumbing, carpentry, masonry, roofing, etc. The ministry is planning to train 5,000 more people through the skill development program, which would start in October while 300 have just finished undergoing training, and 400 are still in the process of undergoing the training.

According to Lyonpo, 600 villagers were trained to build proper houses, window making, carpentry etc through the Village Skills Development Program.

The ministry found that about 90 percent of construction workers has always been foreign workers while about 8,000-9,000 Bhutanese people are involved in the construction sector as of now.

As to whether the Bhutanese workers will be able to provide the same quality of service as the predominant foreign workers, the ministry said that it will be difficult to make the comparison, but in Bhutan, workers are graded under the national certification system like NC3, NC2, etc., in order to judge their skills and competency, but there is no such certification for foreign workers.

Regarding the government’s move to protect the Bhutanese workers from getting forcefully terminated, in the view of foreign workers, Lyonpo said that there is labor protection division within the ministry to protect the laborers.

There are due procedures involved in termination of workers, and notice will have to be issued in advance with genuine reasons. If such procedures are not followed, people can always complain to the ministry. For now, the ministry expects the Bhutanese and foreign workers to work in cohesion in construction sector.  

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