Some villagers in lower Kheng in Zhemgang, who have been employed as laborers by contractors in various construction work sites on the Gomphu – Panbang highway, say that the contractors are being extremely stern, and are also blatantly breaching labour laws.
As per the national labour norms, all employees in any organizations, firms, and business entities are entitled to a paid weekend, but according to the laborers, the contractors do not adhere to the rules and laws that entitle for a worker to rest during the weekends.
A laborer, on basis of anonymity, said they are not allowed to take even a day off on Sunday and are forced to work throughout the week.
“If we take even a day off, that means an end to our work,” said the laborer. He said they are warned to be regular at work, irrespective of what day it is, and that if they choose to stay back, even on Sunday from work, then their employee status is cancelled.
Last month, three laborers were terminated from work by the contractor because they missed just a day which fell on a Sunday. One of the laborers fired from the job said that he couldn’t make to work as he had important agriculture chores to tend to at home.
The terminated laborer said, “I could not make it to the work, but I expected some consideration, at the least, from the contractor, but instead I was asked to leave the workplace immediately.”
Asked if they were paid equivalent to work when terminated from their jobs, they all said they were paid the cash compensation.
The construction of Gomphu – Panbang highway is seen as a socio-economic boost for the people of lower Kheng region. The four gewogs of lower Kheng in Zhemgang is considered to be the least developed and poverty stricken region in Bhutan. The lack of access to motorable road and absence of other developmental amenities in Zhemgang have deterred the growth and progress in the dzongkhag.
With the completion of the highway, farmers in Zhemgang hope to transport their farm produce, especially the citrus fruit, mandarin to the market areas. So far, the villagers carry the farm produce, like the mandarin, on their backs to the nearest market at Panbang, enduring tough treks in the forest. The farmers who cannot make the long trek eat what they can and leave the rest to fall from the trees and plants and to rot on the ground.
The villagers say the Gomphu – Panbang highway will bring in the economic mobility to pull them out of poverty. Many villagers also have the chance to earn cash by working in the road construction sites as laborers. Some farmers have left the farmland fallow, and those who cultivate, grow just enough and buy the supplementary ration with the money they earn as construction workers.
Some of the laborers say they are being exploited as they are taken to work on the contractor’s farms. “We have been enrolled to work on road, not in his private field,” said a laborer who was made to work on the contractor’s farm. But since disagreement comes at the cost of their jobs, the laborers say they have to bear with it, and be at the mercy of the contractor.
One of the terminated laborers recounted the many times when they were made to work at the engineer’s backyard farm and also tend to his household errands.
The most extreme case was when they were denied a holiday on July 13, the Poll Day of the general round of Parliamentary election. This comes in violation of the Election Laws, whereby all employees of any organizations in the country are required to be excused from work on Poll Day to exercise their adult franchise.
“We are a mere farmers, we do not know how and where to register such complaints,” said the laborers. They said that, for farmers like them, no one heeds to their plight, and that they cannot afford to pursue such complaints since it entails much expenditure for them.
Hence, they said, they have resorted to expressing the work exploitation through the media. They said through media everyone will come to know and relevant authorities will act on it.
Meanwhile, the site engineer Kezang said that the construction works which falls under the project do not allow laborers to take day off on Sunday or the government holidays. He said that the project has to meet its deadline, and in order to do so, the laborer attendance is monitored strictly.
“ Depending on the number of days the laborers miss from work, their pay is being deducted” said the engineer. He also said that the incompetent laborers and frequent absentees are terminated from work.
However, the engineer said the leave taken by the laborers during the general election is still marked as absent and the deduction in their remuneration has not yet been decided. “We are waiting for the command from the higher officials,” he said.