In the wake of COVID-19, the contractors in the country have been facing the shortage of workforce after the government stopped the import of foreign laborers in the country on 5 March. Once the lockdown in India opens, the Indian laborers are planning to return back to their homes, and it is going to hit the construction sector the hardest.
Meanwhile, The Bhutanese talked with some of the Indian laborers in the country on the current situation.
MD Tanbir, a paver operator from Bihar, India said that he wants to return back to his village once the lockdown opens in India.
“I have been here in Bhutan for the last three months. And with the outbreak of the disease, the country has been under lockdown and I couldn’t go back. I am sacred that if I don’t return back then I might not be able to see my family for more than a year. I want to see them eagerly,” he said.
Murshid Khan from Rampur, Bihar said that due to the lockdown in India, he could not go back and has worked in the country on three consecutive projects.
“I want to go back to my country now, and be there during this time with my family and spend my time with them. This the first time that I did not go to my village after completing a project,” he said.
Ranjan Kumar, a roadside worker said that he is waiting for the lockdown to get over in India.
“I am the oldest sibling in the family, and I am worried about my parents and younger siblings. I don’t know how the conditions there right now, so I want return as soon as the lockdown opens,” he said.
In the meantime, the Secretary of Construction Association of Bhutan (CAB), Tshering Yonten, said the closure of entry points and the lockdown in India has already sparked the fear among the contractors that without the workforce, none of the works can complete on time. The Bhutanese workers are not willing to work on construction sites.
According to him, the construction sector has been hit the hardest. The contractors whose work completion is on March are the most affected because the procuring agencies are not considering any extension. He said many Indian laborers had left for India on the Holi break, and after which they were barred from entering into Bhutan as the government banned the import of foreign laborers.
“The procuring agencies are saying that they are not informed and they cannot give time extension and the contractors have to complete the work by employing Bhutanese workers. Though the contractors have mobilized the Bhutanese workers, after the government issued a notice on avoiding gatherings and maintain social distancing, the workers have stopped coming to the workplace,” he said, adding that even if the workers wanted to come, their families didn’t allow them fearing that they might get the disease.
He said that the procuring agencies are making them to do the works and they have to complete the work, if not they will be imposed with penalty.
“We approached the Prime Minister’s Office, but our purpose was not to ask for help, but to give a fund to combat COVID-19. We have contributed Nu 1.5 million. And Prime Minister said that the government will look into the matter,” he said.
The contractors are hopeful that the government to grant time extension on the works.
“The Indian government has announced the lockdown for 21 days, so we are just asking the government to give the time extension. Some contractors have to complete their work before March and without completing they cannot handover the work to the government and if they fail to handover they have to pay 10 percent to the government as a penalty,” he said.
He added that the price of construction materials have gone up due to the scarcity in the market.
“Due to the closure of entry point from Phuentsholing and lockdown in India, the price of cement has increased as it is coming through the Bhutanese route and they are charging the transportation fees. And now, the contractors want to request the government to monitor the price escalation after the situation gets back to normal,” he added.
A contractor of Druk Chapchab Construction Private Limited, Sonam Tobgay, said that due to the closure of international borders since 23 March, it has created hindrance on both the supply of skilled workers and materials, that needs to be imported.
He said, adding that it has lesser impact on farm road contractors who deploy more machinery.
He said that the supply of national workforce in construction sector has drastically dropped due to the fear of the COVID-19.
“People are abiding or being skeptical about the spread of coronavirus and they don’t come to work and we are facing the shortage of workers,” he said.
He added that as a construction association, they are collectively making small contributions in their own capacities, and creating awareness among the workers and taking precautionary measures.
“While hindrances are to be noted. At this point, I am more concerned about the impact of COVID-19 in our country. I am also looking at roles that we, as individuals, can take to help the government in fighting against COVID-19. Some steps that we are taking are creating awareness on physical distancing and washing hands among our workers at site,” he said, adding that it is the right time to serve the King and the country.
A contractor based in Trongsa said “Firstly, the government banned the import of foreign workers, and secondly the availability of national workforce and the price of materials and cost escalation has stopped the ongoing work in this situation. We don’t expect government to compensate us in such worst situation, but give us time extension to complete the work,” he said.
“The contractors are very much aware of the present situation and how difficult the things are going. We are collectively supporting and making donations and we have contributed some funds to combat COVID-19 and this is all inspired by His Majesty The King and how the government has taken it seriously. Every individual should appreciate the leadership taken by His Majesty,” he said.
The Government of India announced the lockdown in India on 24 March for 21 days.