Farm labor wage rates goes through the roof

Farmers with maximum land ownership face difficulty in hiring labor due to which cultivation is hindered.

The alarming increase in wage rate poses a huge threat to the famous red rice-production in Shengana

Farmers in the shengana village of Punakha are faced with a serious issue of increased wage rate, making it difficult to maintain the level of crop cultivation.

The issue is rampant also in some Gewogs in the western Dzongkhags that has rice productions.

The big players, farmers with maximum land ownership are facing difficulty in hiring labor due to which cultivation is hindered. The humble section that are basically farmers who have no wet lands of their own but have been cultivating on a share basis with the land lords for years are now gradually calling it quits as working for wages is deemed more profitable.

This is an obvious symptom of possible rural-urban migration as farmers are bound to resort to alternative ways of living if crop cultivation is no more affordable for them.

Another impact will be on red rice volume that the village has been supplying to neighboring Dzongkhags. This is not a very good sign for the government of the day which is in an attempt to upscale food-production in the country.

In almost all the cases, workers as well as the farmers hiring the workers are from the same village.

A farmer from the central region of the Gewog said, “growing rice has become very expensive and my family cannot afford to pay for workers at this wage rate. Soon we may have to resort to working for others or consider doing business”.

He added that in the past the villagers would never think of consuming imported rice from India but now some have already started depending on Indian white rice.

Agriculture Secretary Dasho Sherub Gyaltshen said the government is assisting farmers to adopt “mechanized planting” but “do not interfere” with the wage rates in the villages.

“Farmers fix the rate themselves and the labor department can only fix the minimum wage rate”, he added.

In a move to address the issue, it was highlighted when Tshogpas of the five villages under Shengana Gewog met last month at the Gewog Yargay Tshogchung (GYT).

Shengana Gup Samten Phuntsho who is also the chairperson of the GYT said “since this is neither a national nor a Dzongkhag level issue, we are trying to initiate internal measures at our Gewog level”.

He said the initiative was taken as the villagers realized how expensive human resource has become as of late. “It was not reasonable to pay more than Nu 300 a day along with grand meals free of cost to a worker”, he said.

Considering the type of farm work and inflation, it was decided that Nu 250 per day is reasonable. Gup Samten said, “we concluded that the Tshogpas shall request everyone in their respective villages not to exceed Nu 250”.

Tshogpa Passang Dorji, “earlier, the Tshogpas pitched for a Nu 200 limit but later agreed to Nu 250 as prices of things have gone up too”.

Namgay Zam, a farmer said people in her village will be grateful if the authorities can come up with a ceiling which will relieve them off their misery.

However, it will depend on the cooperation of the farmers as there are neither rules nor regulations as such.

A village elder who talked to The Bhutanese said such practices arise because of a few households who encourage the others by making unreasonable payments to workers in order to be among the first to complete plantations for the year. “It can also be because of competition arising from scarce human resource”, he said.

Passang said, “if the government or authorities don’t do anything about it, cultivation will become very difficult or impossible in the near future”.

He said, “apart from rice cultivation, even for vegetable plantations we need to depend on our neighbors for human resource but it doesn’t make sense if proceeds from vegetable we sell cannot cover even the cost of hiring”.

Passang said wage rate in his chiwog has been increasing at an alarming rate to as high as Nu 400 a worker per day. “We really need specific laws so that it can be implemented”, he added.

Ex- Gup, Dodo of Manikha village in Shengana said many farmers are cutting down on costs by reducing the volume of cultivation. “Sometimes the harvested yield cannot meet the desired target and more people have now shown interest in working for wages”. He said a five acre wet land during plantation requires an average of Nu 300 for 50 workers and the total payment works out to some Nu 15,000 without including expenses for other works such as weeding and harvesting. “It’s profitable to become a wage worker because you get paid along with meals”, he said.

Director with the Labor Ministry Jigme Thinley Namgyal said the government has set the minimum national workforce wage rate at Nu 160 per day and the maximum is determined by the market just like the prices of vegetables which is not fixed.

“We are here to say that anyone working in Bhutan should not be paid less than Nu 100 a day. Upper ceiling is not set anywhere in the world”, the director said.

The wage issue farmers said have direct impact on the yield as maximum potential of their land cannot be exploited due to labor shortage. One of the village Tshogpa, Namgay Zam said households cannot pull off the entire work independently and need to rely on expensive day workers which sometimes are not affordable. “So there is great danger that the yield will be hugely affected”.

She also said many farmers are forced to leave part of their fields barren due to the lack of human resource.

The wage rate goes up during rice cultivation seasons and subsides during winter. “You pay more when people are required to work in wet land during plantation but it’s cheaper during dry months”, Namgay Zam said.

Namgay Zam said she shall call for a village meeting under her Chirwog to share the minutes and outcome of the GYT and urge farmers to adhere to the average daily wage rate of Nu 250.

Another Tshogpa, Naku said the wage rate under his Chirwog is under control at a maximum of Nu 200 during plantation season. “However, when we hire people from our neighboring villages, we are bound to pay more as per their demand”, he added.

Shengana Gewog, some 40 minutes drive from the Punakha Dzong is reputed for its production of high quality red rice and is the main crop in the village.

In October last year, crops in four villages of Shengana were destroyed by a severe hailstorm. Rice grains of about 167 acres of paddy ready to be harvested which belonged to 105 households were shattered.

The Agriculture Ministry after coming to the rescue then decided that given the high productivity and further potential for rice production in Shengana, it will be one of the priority Gewogs under the Rice Accelerating Bhutan’s Socio-Economic Development (ABSD) project.

Like Shengana, wage rate is an issue across many Gewogs in the western region of the country that cultivate paddy.

The Gup of Naro Gewog in Thimphu, Wangchuk said “daily wages have increased but there is nothing much that can be done as people must carry on cultivation”.

He said the average wage rate in his Gewog is Nu 400 per day.

“If you refuse to pay the same amount of wage that the others are paying, then you will get no workers in your field”, he explained.

However, he said many villagers are now dependant on dairy products and the wage rate doesn’t affect much.

Farmers in Wangdue suffer from the same problem but there is no sign of improvement when it comes to wage rates. Kazhi Gewog Gup Sigay Dorji said the rates are increased as a result of competition between the farmers.  “We now have a huge lack of farm labor and those available are very expensive”.

He said if the trend continues, people may give up farming very soon.

However, Gup Sigay said he was helpless as the rates are controlled by farmers themselves. “If we fix a ceiling to it, villagers will protest”, he said.

Bji Gewog in Haa, according to Gup Ugyen has maintained a very low wage rate across all villages. However, he said the villagers do very little farm work in the Gewog and usually work for neighboring Gewogs and Dzongkhags such as Paro where the wages are high.

“People try to rush through their little cultivation in the Gewog and then make themselves available for others”, he said.

This is one ironic situation at a time when the country is faced with a severe rupee shortfall and when the government is expected to enhance farming.

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