The National Council (NC) held an extensive discussion on the large numbers of foreign workers and illegal immigration into the country based on a report prepared by the Legislative Committee of the NC.
The report said that immigration of workers to Bhutan dates back to 1960s, when expatriate workers were recruited for road construction, and thereafter in hydropower construction.
Illegal immigration include undocumented expatriate workers, baby sitters, maids, waiters and attendants in restaurant or hotels, traders, direct and indirect dependents without work permit and living in the country even after the completion of their contract periods.
Chairperson of the National Council, Dasho (Dr) Sonam Kinga said, “Today’s discussion is very important, for one of the most important roles of NC is to protect the peace and security of the nation.”
As per the report from Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR), as of 6th April 2016, the Department of Labour has approved work permits for 48,675 foreign workers.
Similarly, the Department of Immigration also reported that it had issued work permits to 45,712 foreign workers as of 5th April 2016.
About 88 percent of the foreign workers are engaged in construction works, 8 percent in the production and manufacturing sector and about 4 percent in the service sector.
Currently, 43 percent of foreign workers are employed in hydropower projects, among it 38 percent of the foreign workers are classified as concrete workers, 22 percent as masons and about 8 percent as carpenter.
Eminent Member, Phuntsho Rabten, said that one of the main reasons for the increase in illegal immigration in the country is due to increasing number of hydropower projects.
Similarly, Chukha NC, Pema Tenzin, said foreign direct investment leads to increase in illegal immigration, be it in terms of tourism sector or hydropower projects.
Bumthang NC, Nima, said that measures have to be taken early on to control illegal immigration. “We need to have a system whereby we can take the fingerprints of daily workers, so that we can know whether they return back to their destination or not,” he said.
MoLHR estimates that about 3,000 foreign workers are employed by Project DANTAK and 2,000 by IMTRAT and around 20,000 foreign day workers work in border towns, and all of them have entered the country without work permits that have to be issued by the Department of Immigration.
The review carried out by the Legislative Committee noted very serious concerns that the concerned agencies of the Royal Government are still not able to bring the non uniform employees of DANTAK and IMTRAT under the mainstream of labour administration system. This was despite a 2010 Executive order by the MoLHR stating that as required by the Labour and Employment Act 2007, it was mandatory for all employers working for DANTAK, IMTRAT and embassies to obtain prior approval and work permit from MoLHR and Department of Immigration before importing an expatriate worker.
The Department of Labour and Department of Immigration initiated discussions with DANTAK and IMTRAT couple of times in the past to mainstream foreign workers employed by them but there was no visible progress.
Immigration officials also reported that some schools in Bhutan issue student cards to children of DANTAK’s non-uniform employees. These cards are then used as travel documents by these children to travel within Bhutan which is illegal.
It was also noted that sometimes DANTAK sometimes does not repatriate their labourers once the project is complete in Bhutan and there are also questions if these workers are legitimate citizens of India.
There were also many instances where foreigners trying to enter Bhutan were using fake voter’s cards some of which were certified as genuine Indian nationals by the Consulate General Office.
Currently, there are 146 Indian traders holding Bhutanese trade license in Phuentsholing. A field visit made by the Members of the Legislative Committee revealed the issue of Indian trader’s direct and indirect dependents.
The demand for the dependent cards by direct dependents who also resides in Bhutan has been increasing over the years. The dependents have been issued certificates, but they prefer the dependant cards instead. Another concern highlighted in NC is that such trader’s license is transferable within the family members including that of land lease rights.
Trashiyangtze NC and Member of Legislative Committee, Tashi Phuntsho, said that the cause for the increase in the number of illegal immigration is due to the increasing number of dependents with the foreigner that has a work permit.
Other problems associated with it include some of them marrying with Bhutanese citizens, and ultimately becoming eligible for Bhutanese citizenship. The House pointed out that there are high chances that such dependents will establish businesses in other parts of Bhutan in the name of their Bhutanese spouses.
NC also discussed on the ceiling number for foreign workers in the country, which is 45,000. The House said the presence of large number of foreign workers in the country is beyond its ceiling rate, bearing serious consequences on national security.
It said issues arise mainly from lack of awareness of the relevant legal provisions, weak implementation of existing Acts and non compliance by agencies, like DANTAK and IMTRAT.
NC urged the government to review foreign workers ceiling, by taking into consideration all ongoing and planned major hydropower projects and other major infrastructure development activities in the country.
Chapter 14 clauses 219 of the Labour and Employment Act 2007 states that no person shall employ a foreigner unless the employer has the approval of the chief labour administrator to employ foreigner.
Likewise, section 117 and 118 of the Immigration Rules and Regulation, which has been revised in 2015 states that an employer wishing to employ foreign workers in the Kingdom shall seek approval for recruitment from the Department of Labour, and upon receiving approval, the concerned employer shall process and obtain work permit from the respective immigration office.
The Legislative Committee reviewed the issue of adequacy of existing laws and regulations to address issue of illegal immigration. The committee found out that the existing laws and regulations, such as Immigration Act of Kingdom of Bhutan 2007, the Labour and Employment Act of Bhutan 2007, and corresponding rules and regulation, have comprehensive provisions to deal with all issues related to immigration and foreign workers recruitment.
NC urged the government to immediately talk with the heads of Project DANTAK and IMTRAT to mainstream their 5,000 non-uninformed employees under the prevailing laws concerning foreign workers and to report its outcome by next session.
However, NC stated its deep appreciation for the major role played by Project DANTAK in Bhutan’s socio-economic development, and of the lasting co-operation that Royal Bhutan Army and IMTRAT shared for decades.
NC also said there needs to be a uniform work permit application system covering all categories of foreign workers, be it for trading or service sectors. NC said there needs to be permit systems for both direct and indirect dependents of Indian traders living in Bhutan.
NC said that the 1:7 ratio of one foreign worker for every seven labour force is very high and such high dependence on foreign workers could lead to adverse ramifications for the country’s peace, security and sovereignty.
According to the Department of Immigration, it is also facing difficulties in controlling the high influx of regional tourists. The number of the regional tourists has increased from 60,385 in 2013 to 114,935 in 2015.
Some of the challenges faced by the law enforcement agencies, like Department of Immigration and Department of Labour, are the lack of appropriate working spaces, shortage of manpower, transport facilities, inadequate service counters, network connectivity, lack of professionalism and training.
The NC said the government must explain to the people for not upholding the foreign workers ceiling and all 20,000 day workers and all other illegal immigrants such as baby sitters, maids and business people without permits must be brought within the purview of labour and immigration laws.
It also recommended that the government see the possibility of providing incentives to those employers who employ 100 percent Bhutanese.
The NC also recommended that Department of Immigration do not accept identity cards and health cards of children of workers without permits and travel documents within the country.
The house called on the government to address manpower and infrastructure facilities required by law enforcement agencies at existing checkpoints and building new checkpoints on new highways constructed along the country’s southern borders.