Guides get into construction to earn a living

Tourist guides have now turned into construction worker to earn a living in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. According to the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB), the income from construction work will help the guides with their needs till the tourism business rebounds.

The Executive Director of GAB, Sonam Tashi, said 1,365 freelance tourist guides are in immediate need of jobs as they totally dependent on the seasonal tourism business.

“During the peak season they work and generate income. December and January, it was a lean season and they didn’t work and waited for the peak season. And on the very set of the peak season, the COVID-19 hampered everything. So technically, they were without jobs for five to six months. They are the ones who need immediate jobs,” he said.

He said the tourism business will take time to rebound, and until then the tour guides have no option but to carry out construction work as means to sustain their livelihood.

“We did a research and interviewed with all the guides. And with the current situation, it will take time for the business to rebound. Even if the situation eases in six months, it will take time because we will not receive immediate tourists because their economies have also been hit the hardest.  So, for around one year there will be no tourist. They will be making money for their trip,” he said.

He said that now is not the time to get ashamed of working at construction sites, especially when the country is facing the economic challenges. The freelance guides will be generating income and contributing to the economy as well.

He said 80 percent of the freelancers are the youth ranging between 18 to 30 years, and they have the strength and energy to work. GAB has conducted an orientation for the guides so as to motivate them and give moral support and advice.

“We called up all the tour guides and did an orientation for a week.  We told them they will not get an immediate job in the offices at this time, and they have to roll into unskilled jobs and make money. You don’t have to feel ashamed to work at site and you will be sent in groups.  It is a contribution to the economy. After explaining to them, they all agreed. At the moment, we have recruited around 60 guides in different construction sites,” he said, adding that some have already started working, and within the coming weeks, 500 guides will work at different work sites.  The first batch will disperse from Thimphu to their work site within this week.

He added that they are also recruiting tour drivers and cooks and the job seekers too. They will have to work for a mandatory period of six months. After six months are over, it is in their hands to continue with the work or leave and work for other organizations.

“They will be paid and free lunch is also provided. Uniforms and other safety equipment will be provided too. They don’t have any option and they are compelled to work. And we are giving them the option to get recruited in the construction sites or stay home. The tourism business is not going to come back till the end of 2021. At first, they had a doubt whether they can do such labour work. And when they were oriented, they realized and agreed. We are explaining and talking with the individuals and letting them know the nature of work, and that it is a contribution to the economy, and they will be serving the country in this difficult situation,” he added.

He also added that there are around 230 female guides of the total 1,365 guides.

“We have around 300 female tour guides and 230 are the freelancers and 50 percent of them have agreed to work. They are ready and some came forward as they are very desperate to work, given the situation,” he added.

He said that the initial salary is set at Nu 17,000 and those with the additional skills will get paid more. The salary range is between Nu 17,000 to Nu 25,000.

“We are going through need basis rather than going through certain criteria. It is an initiative of the Construction Development Corporation Limited.  Salary will root through labour and CDCL will deposit into individual accounts. The salary will be given based on their skills but initial salary will be Nu 17,000. Those with the VTI training will be given little higher,” he said.

He said that the association has not talked with the permanent guides who are working under different tour agencies.

“70 percent of 1,365 are willing to work and take the unskilled job. However, we have not talked with the permanent guides who are working under different tour operators. The permanent guides are also coming forward and getting registered because they understand that their companies will also face trouble if the situation goes on like this,” he said, adding that there are enough jobs at the construction sites for the guides and job seekers.

He further said that the guides will go as unskilled workers and they will come back with different skills as they get trained at the construction sites.

“We are rolling them into construction sites, not just for labour work but for the training and it will help them in the future too. And they will also receive national certificates. After gaining skills, it’s in their hands to work or go into guiding.  During peak season they can work as tour guides and during the lean season they can work in the construction sites,” he said, adding that at the work site they will be taking precautionary measures to contain COVID-19.

A senior freelance guide who has worked for past 18 years in the tourism sector, Jimpa Phuntsho, said that every guide in the country is aware of the current situation, and in such dire times, one must take up jobs without shame if it helps in earning an honest livelihood.

“Our only concern is about the income. Most of us are willing to work at the construction sites, and we are ready to face whatever comes on our way. We don’t have to feel ashamed working at sites because it is like any other job, and as long as we are earning and working with the dignity, we don’t have to worry about being judged,” he said.

Tashi Wangchuk, 25, who worked as a tour guide said that it is a good initiative provided for the tour guides.

“When I heard the news, I immediately registered with GAB without a second thought. It is a great help from the government for us whose income generation has been affected at this point. During this course, we will be engaged in the construction sites and generate income till the tourism business bounces back,” he said.

Tshering Deki, 25, a freelance female guide said that she is happy that the government has come up with such an initiative where the guides will be engaged and paid at this time when the country’s economy is being hit the hardest.

“We are very thankful to GAB and the government for helping us in this situation. We know that every sector has been affected, and we are lucky that we will be provided a job and the salary is handsome too,” she said.

However, she said that it would be difficult for the female guides to work in construction sites as it requires physical strength and it will take time for them to get skilled.

“Men can do such kinds of work because they have the physical strength, whereas it will be difficult for us as we don’t possess any skills and the strength too,” she said.

Meanwhile, some tour guides have taken up commercial farming as alternate source of income in Paro.  GAB is facilitating and providing technical support, machinery, water tanks, seeds, pipes, and greenhouse. Today, there are more than 4,000 guides in the country.

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