Cabinet’s clearance for 260 plus foreign workers put on hold after COVID scare in Jaigaon

The Department of Immigration in a notification on 1st June had said that entry of foreign workers in the professional and skilled category would be allowed in priority sectors.

It said that entry of even those in the labour category will be allowed after quarantine facilities have been identified and approved.

Following this, the Labour Minister Lyonpo Ugyen Dorji said that people applied for around 500 to 600 people while the hydro projects applied separately given their special nature.

The Labour Ministry processed some of the applications and put it up in the cabinet which gave approvals for around 260 plus foreign professional and skilled workers.

The Foreign Minister Lyonpo Tandi Dorji said the approved are a mix of private construction, hydropower, Dantak etc. but permanent medical screening structures need to be set up first in Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samtse and Samdrupjongkhar to test not only for COVID-19 but also other medical screening.

He said the emphasis in the first phase is only on skilled and professional workers.

However, the recent COVID-19 scare of 17 people testing positive in Jaigaon out of 100 frontline people, including local officials, and also the worsening situation in India has put a pause on this.

The Labour minister said that while the cabinet has given approval it can only be seen as being an ‘in-principal approval’ as the ministry is yet to communicate with the applicants given that the situation on the ground is not good and some medical diagnostic centers for the labourers are still being set up.

Of this 260 or so around 44 foreign workers were in the first batch which not only got cabinet approval but the ministry had also communicated this to the applicants.

However, here too there is a spanner in the works as of the 44 only 4 or 5 people who are teachers have made it into Bhutan.

Lyonpo said the various formalities for the rest of the 44 have not yet been complete but now even for them it would be difficult to get in given the situation.

Lyonpo said that even when people apply for skilled workers like masons and carpenters there is no certification. He said if a person applies for 5 to 6 people to operate machines only one may be approved as an issue is also of tests kits being limited in number.

He said that there are requirements made in manufacturing, education, health and construction among others.

If this wasn’t enough the Punatsangchu II project has put up an urgent requirement of 440 foreign workers to the government through a different channel.

The MD of P II Amresh Kumar said that the workers are mainly required for work on the power house and the down stream surge gallery.

He said they have around 2,900 workers at site and so far they have been managing by transferring workers from non-critical areas like the dam with 90 percent completion and Head Race Tunnel (HRT) with 99 percent completion to the power house and surge gallery.

While people have left in droves from both the P II and P I project the MD said that what has helped to retain workers in the P II projects is giving additional pay from the project of Nu 3,000 to Nu 4,000 per month.

The MD said the plan is to get the workers through Phuentsholing and Gelephu gates and Paro airport with the preference being through Phuentsholing.

He said the matter for the requirement of the workers has been put up to the two government who are discussing the procedure. He said he was assured that his requirement will be actively considered and that the matter is under active deliberation.

The MD claimed that already some government approved quarantine centers in the form of hotels in Phuentsholing and Gelephu had been identified to keep workers at the project’s cost.

The MD said that July 2020 saw good news for the project as the surge shaft was successfully concreted. This is important as the earlier collapse in the surge shaft that buried some workers and exposed a geological weakness, had the potential to delay the project.

The MD said, “We want to deliver the project as fast as possible.”

While the MD did not say it directly, the hint is clear that P II requires the workers to complete the project on time.

The Labour Minister said that hydropower is treated separately, however, considering the numbers being requisitioned it seems to also include non-skilled foreign workers. 

He said given the current situation it will be difficult to approve it as the main focus in on health and preventing community transmission in Bhutan.

The P I project currently has 900 workers at site but recently 100 left and the project requires around 175 people.

The approved 600 MW Kholongchu project, once it starts, will require 2,000 to 3,000 people at peak construction and around 500 to 600 people at the start of the project.

Hiring locals

Given the risk and difficulty in importing foreign workers one option being actively explored and encouraged is hiring local Bhutanese workers, especially for works that do not require skills.

However, here too, there are issues with lack of interest by the youths despite incentives. The P II project has a basic pay of 12,000 to 15,000 pay for unskilled workers. It added an incentive of Nu 3,000 to Nu 4000 on this.

The MD said that around 60 Bhutanese applied but eventually only around 17 of them joined. 

With regard to hydropower MoEA minister Loknath Sharma said that there is an effort to create attractive incentives to attract Bhutanese youth.

The minister said the pay for an unskilled worker is being enhanced to Nu 17,000, subsidized meals will be given for Nu 1,000 per month, there will be pre fab housing, PPE gear will be given. Lyonpo said that there will be insurance too and so a complete module of incentives is being worked out to attract Bhutanese youth to hydropower given the large requirement there and also the importance of the projects.

Apart from hydropower, the question is also about the incentives for Bhutanese youth in general to join construction where there is an acute shortage.

The labour minister said going by past numbers Bhutan needs around 50,000 workers but it currently only has 23,000 in the country meaning a shortage of around 25,000. Here the minister cautioned it would not mean all 25,000 are needed as many works are not happening and some others have been prioritized and frontloaded.

The minister said that to encourage locals to get into construction Build Bhutan project would first ensure a training of one or two months at a Vocational or Technical Training Institute for one or two months where they would get Nu 6,000 per month.

On completing the training, a minimum floor wage of Nu 12,000 would be set with  contractors and on this the government would give a 25 percent hike coming to Nu 15,000.

In the first year the government would bear the 10 percent Provident Fund while the employees would pay 5 percent and in the second year it would be 5 percent each for the employee, government and the employee.

Lyonpo said 2,001 people so far have applied for Build Bhutan against the 4,000 vacancies registered with the ministry.

Here Lyonpo clarified that not all 2,001 applicants are finalized as they can change their minds or have other issues and also not all 4,000 vacancies are there as people may over state vacancies or it could be people not willing to meet the governments standards.

Lyonpo said in reality match making between the employee and employer is quite challenging. He said most are not able to decide and have reservations or change their mind. Some cannot come. Lyonpo said from the employer’s side they could be hoping for or awaiting for foreign workers to be allowed.

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