The National Council’s ‘Foreign Workers and Illegal Immigration in the Country’ report pointed out several issues on illegal immigration, non documentation of certain workers, large numbers of workers and issues faced by the immigration department.
The Bhutanese based on the findings of the National Council (NC) report questioned the Home Minister and other officials in the ministry on what was being done about the issues pointed out by the report.
The Bhutanese got in touch with Project DANTAK and IMTRAT as the NC report said that a total of 5,000 non-uniformed foreign workers with the two organizations do not have work permits issued by the Department of Immigration.
On being contacted the Chief Engineer of Project DANTAK Brigadier PKG Mishra said that being new he also received information on the issue from news reports on the NC report. However, he declined to respond to the NC report saying that he was not senior enough to do so and he was yet to receive any official communication.
The Office of the IMTRAT Commandant in Thimphu also declined to comment on the NC report.
However, a Home Ministry official on the condition of anonymity said that they were working with the two organizations and the matter is being handled internally in a mutually cooperative manner.
The NC report pointed out that both the Department of Labour and Department of Immigration had exceeded the current ceiling of 45,000 workers set in 2000 by the then cabinet as the Labour Department had given work permits for 48,675 workers as of 6th April 2016.
The Home Minister Lyonpo Dawa Gyeltshen said that most of the workers are employed in the Hydropower sector. He clarified that all these labourers were documented with their details and bio-metric data like fingerprints.
Lyonpo said, “Our stand is that whatever number of people come to work in the hydropower sector, all are repatriated once the projects are over.”
The Minister gave the example of Chukha and Tala projects that has 100 percent Bhutanese workers for Operation and Maintenance. Lyonpo also cited his own personal experience of having worked in the Tala project where all foreign workers left once the project was over.
One major issue also pointed out by the NC report was on the manpower shortage faced by the Department of Immigration and how it is hampering the performance of the department.
The Home Minister said that the main reason for the manpower shortage was due to the ACC’s prosecution and conviction of around 28 Immigration officials. The minister said that to fill in the gap and get more the Royal Civil Service Commission has allowed the ministry to hire 50 immigration officers which the ministry is currently doing. Lyonpo said that they would be kept for a month in headquarters before being sent to the field.
One issue highlighted both in the NC report and also media reports was on the long lines at the immigration counter in Phuntsholing causing inconvenience to tourists and others.
Here the minister said that recently the immigration office in Phuntsholing had been allotted a whole building in Phuntsholing which is currently under renovation. He said once done the ground floor would have 15 windows catering to labourers coming into Bhutan while the floor above would have a separate entrance and facility for tourists. There would be toilets and drinking water facilities provided at the offices. Lyonpo also said that once the additional manpower is deployed is would also ease the situation.
The NC pointed out 20,000 foreign day workers in the border towns who came in during the day but did not have work permits issued by the Department of Immigration.
Here the minister said that though the bio-metric data of the workers are not recorded the Department of Labour issues them with work permits otherwise they would not be allowed to work in Bhutan. Lyonpo said that the Immigration Department also has a list of these workers.
Both the tourism sector and the NC report have also raised issue on the high numbers of regional tourists and its impact on the country.
Lyonpo said that the Home Ministry already has had many internal meetings consulting around 21 stakeholders on the issue of regional tourists and illegal workers.
One major area of illegal immigration pointed out by the NC report was in the hiring of maids from across the border.
Here the minister said that a while ago the Labour Ministry had training programs for local Bhutanese housemaids with the condition that they had to be above 18 years of age and paid between Nu 7,000 to Nu 9,000 per month. Lyonpo said that since Bhutan’s living standard is not high many families could not afford such rates.
The Home Minister said that the ministry was working hard to bring down illegal immigration. He said one measure that is being taken is to incentivize immigration officers by giving a part of the immigration fine money if they can catch illegal immigrants and successfully deport them across the border. Lyonpo said that the scheme had existed earlier and it has now been reactivated.