Bhutanese women face a gender bias in the construction sector despite coming forward

Since the launch of Build Bhutan Project (BBP), the BBP department under Ministry of Labor and Human Resources have registered 5, 831 candidates seeking for jobs at construction sites. Of the total registered candidates 2,045 are women of which they could engage only 175 women so far.

Of the 175 women, 128 are jobseekers, 39 are laid off and 8 are overseas returnees. As per the data from the ministry, 77 women are National Certificate holders who have passed skilling programs of the government. So far 75 women have completed skilling training from the institutes and 65 are undergoing training at the moment.

In comparison, the total men registered under BBP is 3,786 of which 393 got engaged. Of the 393 men who got engaged under BBP, 196 are NC holder.171 men completed the skilling training under the project while 138 men are under going skilling programs in different institutes. 

Though the number of registered women under BBP is quite overwhelming, the number of engagement is much lesser compared to the men. This is because of a clear gender bias among construction companies in favour of Bhutanese men over women.

This comes at a time when the government has significantly increased pay packages under the BBP program and at a time when the construction sector is struggling to get workers.

The ministry has been trying to encourage employers to take up women, however, they are reluctant to absorb more women into the field, even though they hold NC certificates.

Minister of Labor Ministry Ugen Dorji said that government has given equal opportunity irrespective of gender, but with different social, cultural and traditional reasons it’s difficult. “However, it’s not that difficult either,” he added.

He said, “In terms of BBP project, the figure itself speaks. It is very difficult to place women as compared to men to available vacancies as the employers are not so keen to take them on board. It is not an issue of whether they are skilled or not. Even among the skilled women workers, it is not easy to place the female NC graduates.”

Lyonpo said that only the employers will know why they are not taking up women candidates but he said guess work will be no good for a very evidence based decision one needs in matters like this.

However, he said that the first reason could be because construction works are works that requires tough physical labor and a lot of energy which generally a man will have more compared to women.

He said, “It can be also because it’s very rare to find female employees so far working in a construction sites as we were dependant on foreign workers. The accommodation itself can be a challenge whereby it cannot be very safe given the kind of accommodation facilities that are available at the construction sites.” 

This can be one main reason of why the employers are reluctant because if they are to provide better accommodation it becomes costly and anything can happen if the environment itself is not safe, Lyonpo added. 

He added that mixing of laborers can be quite complicating though not based on evidences.

 However, the BBP team is carrying out a survey on how things are moving.

Lyonpo said, “We do have other programs that are available like YELP and entrepreneurship development training in which we can enroll women. We are also working on newer programs that are much bigger in scope and much stronger in design. However, those programs are yet to be rolled out.”

He said, in addition, the ministry has not stopped the overseas employment program and thousands are working in gulf countries and they are doing pretty well in fact. More people want to go abroad, especially those who have returned from overseas due to the pandemic, said the minister.

Lyonpo said now that the vaccine has come, people will be able to go back to their work stations and the employers are requesting them to facilitate the process part given the current situation. Once the vaccination programs are complete they will have more confidence to allow people to go back and to basically slowly resume the overseas program and the works which were in the process before the pandemic, he said.

Meanwhile, he said that they are putting in every effort to make the employers understand the importance of including women, especially in a situation where women are very willing to come forward and take the job.

“It is not that the employer doesn’t want to give women the job but the nature of job itself is tough whereby it would be hard for women to take up. I feel that employees will have to make certain efforts but we must at a same time recognize the fact that the employers can’t take all the loss because of the reduced output,” he said.

Talking to few contractors in ground, they shared that they would love to give equal opportunity to women as well but what matters is completion of work on time whereby women can do half the amount of work as everything has to be done manually and they do not have the capacity to work equally as men.

“Women are hardworking and dedicated but they consume a lot of time which usually hampers eventually leading to delay in work completion and penalty. This way we are not blaming women but one must know the nature of job which also makes their life difficult,” a contractor added.

Nevertheless, they are trying at least give opportunity to a few.

Dr. Meenakshi Rai from RENEW shared that she won’t take this as discrimination but it is a fact that construction works are heavy compared to any other works and construction firms will want to absorb people who can do heavy work.

“May be this is the reason why employers are not ready to take women. Moreover, if they have a child it would be additional burden to the mother and also to the employers,” she added.

“They always talk about child care and child protection but what about the children and women along the roadside whereby they are put up in small sheds.”

She said, “We always feel if there will be a rape case or a sexual harassment case and these are the areas where we have not reached. There is no other alternative than to work as they would be the sole bread earner in the family and that mother will have no time for their children.”

Though RENEW did not receive any sexual harassment cases from the construction sites, they did receive few cases of harassment at work stations in hydropower projects.

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