A notification issued by the Department of Immigration has put contractors in a dilemma on whether to bring in the skilled foreign laborers or not. But they are pressed hard to bring in the laborers as they are under pressure by procuring agencies to complete the projects.
The contractors are also worried if any COVID-19 positive case is detected among the foreign laborers. They are also worried as they have to bear the expenditure for quarantine and treatment which they feel us too much to bear for them. They are also worried about any associated risks.
Their problem is made worse with the fact that with the lockdown 5.0 in India opening up a lot of restrictions being lifted many foreign workers, skilled and unskilled, are heading back.
They are recruiting local unskilled workers for now, even though it hampers with the work progress. Most of the contractors are also not able to start the work that they tendered before COVID-19 due to labor shortage issue.
They shared that the government has been supportive and they hope to strike a negotiation where the government agrees to pay half the cost for keeping the laborers under quarantine, or if the government can bear the cost of testing kits.
The contractors point out that there is no need of taking the risk of bringing in the foreign laborers if a time extension for ongoing works can be given by postponing the starting date of the work which they got after COVID-19 pandemic by at least three months.
20 percent of the procuring agencies are not ready to give them the time extension, they said.
General Secretary of Construction Association of Bhutan (CAB) Tshering Yonten, said that the contractors across the country are worried if they have to bear all the expenses in bringing in the laborers.
The contractors said that they did not include the expenditure while quoting the price since it happened before COVID-19 in the country. So the price may shoot up if they have to bear all the quarantine expenditure and others.
“The contactors, therefore, claim that if the government can put the laborers in isolated places, like in schools or elsewhere rather than quarantining them in hotels which involves more expenditure. The possibility of supplying them all the essential items without letting them come in contact with outsiders. But of course with guidance from RBP and DeSuups,” he said.
Otherwise, if the procuring agencies can provide them with additional budget to facilitate the imported laborers, and also if they can let the contractors include the expenditure of bringing in the laborers while quoting their prices in tender henceforth, he added.
He said, “We can get the helpers from within, but, it’s hard to get the skilled labors. For that matter, they will have to bring in skilled laborers. The skilled laborers from outside can teach our own Bhutanese.”
The alternative they can have is to train the interested Bhutanese in country whereby they need not have to depend upon foreign workers during such pandemic, he said.
He said, “There are situations whereby the contractors are pressurized to complete the work on time and to start the work immediately after taking over the sites, knowing that there are no laborers at site. However, there are some procuring agencies that are considerate. Therefore, it would be nice if the government can make that gesture for all.”
The proprietor of Shakshing Goenpa Construction, Tshering Penjor, said that bringing in the laborer on his own expense would be tough. As per his calculations, he would have to spend around Nu 350,000 for 10 laborers.
“It would be nice if they allow and put laborers under strict quarantine at respective work sites with strict SOPs and under strict surveillance. That way, we will not have to take the risk in having COVID-19 positive. Moreover, we never know if the laborers will stay at site until the end of the contract, after spending so much on them,” he added.
He said the risk could be avoided if the government can give some time extension.
“If this is considered then I think we need not have to bring in the laborers during such time posing risk to people and country.”
The contractors said the work quality would be compromised if they have to spend a huge amount on the laborers. They also have to pay higher rates for the local workers but the work progress is very slow.
He said that, “Though there is impact on country’s economy, I feel that it would be better if the government does not allow any foreign worker until the situation gets back to normal.”
Sonam Tobgay from Druk Chhapcha Construction Pvt. Ltd said, “Risk wise, it is taken care as they will have to undergo 21 days quarantine as per their standards. However, as a business we are going to have cost implications if we bring in the laborers.”
He said that the government had earlier said that short-term training is to be given to the local laborers to get them skilled in focused areas. He said such training is needed immediately with the way things are going.
“I would need around 40 laborers and it would have a huge cost implication if I have to pay myself. Therefore, for the moment, I am not going to bring in foreign laborers as we are trying to resolve it through local workers. But local for sure are not skilled, thereby we are going to have a tough time,” he added.
He has 42 foreign workers and 30 local laborers currently, but the foreign workers want to go back home.
Neten Wangdi from Neten Construction Pvt. Ltd said that they only need skilled foreign laborers as they get many local helpers. Nevertheless, even if they bring 10 foreign workers the expenses would be huge, so if government can do something on this, at least share 50 percent of the cost, he said.
“When we tendered, we did not know such situation would arise. However, the procuring agency now demands to start the work and finish it on time. We are having tough time due to labor shortage. We do not know what to do,” he said.
If needed then they may have to procure only 20 percent of the foreign laborer and 80 percent the local laborers as they are left with no choice, he added. He said, “Bringing in foreign laborers would be risky though.”
The COVID-19 Taskforce said, “Mindful of the importance and demand for foreign workers in the professional/skilled category for sustainability and operations of projects and businesses and for the economy, in general, the taskforce deliberated extensively to put in place a system to regulate and facilitate entry without compromising protocols.”
Towards this end, SOPs have been developed and endorsed to regulate and facilitate entry in priority sectors. It is mandatory, without exception, for all foreign workers granted entry to undergo 21-days quarantine at a designated facility.
Home quarantine shall not be permitted and testing kits have to be borne by the foreign worker or employer. Furthermore, cost of medical treatment, if required, shall be borne by the foreign worker or employer.
“A medical certificate will be issued by the Ministry of Health to a foreign worker on completion of 21-days quarantine and upon testing negative. They will be issued work permits only after completing quarantine after testing negative,” said the members.
While contractors are worried about the cost of getting foreign labourers the Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that ultimately the ministry will decide how many can be allowed in or not depending on the number of test kits which are limited.
She said that only skilled people who are really needed will be allowed in and large numbers would not be allowed.