Businesses across the southern border towns remained mostly closed during this week’s Assam and Bengal elections, which even saw the country’s bustling commercial hub, Phuentsholing, turn into a ghost town overnight
Every time an election takes place across the border, it is a reminder of how hopelessly dependent Bhutanese traders are on the Indian day workers, who have become an integral part of their community, however, the labor ministry wants to gradually replace them with the national work force.
But many, Business Bhutan talked to, are apprehensive about this transition, and say if it is not executed properly, businesses community could suffer.
Today every border town employs scores of Indian day-workers, not to mention the few hundred coolies working illegally; they are hired by retailers, wholesalers, hoteliers, suppliers, builders and many more, as they come willingly and cheap.
“Work related to loading for instance is highly labor intensive in nature, and does not attract many Bhutanese. On the other hand our local economy mostly comprises small and medium enterprises, which cannot do without the Indian workers,” said a wholesaler.
Meanwhile, a policy enacted by the economic affair ministry categorizes sand, brick, boulder and scrap supply under trade, and not services, thereby, disqualifying them from hiring any Indian laborer.
“Of all the trade, supplying these materials is most labor intensive, and we were denied Indian workers,” said a boulder supplier, “Despite offering good salary, hardly any Bhutanese come forward to take up the loading job. It’s a punishing routine.”
While the labor ministry insists on employing Bhutanese youths, even for the supply trade, it is somehow not in consonance with the national education policy, which inspires Bhutanese youths to study, and strive for a better life.
“On one hand, our education system encourages every Bhutanese youth to dream for a better tomorrow, while on the other hand they talk about placing our youths as menial workers,” said a scrap dealer.
Despite the frequent crackdown on undocumented Indian workers by the immigration office, which traders here see as harassment, yet they have to keep on employing them, or the supply chain would break down. At one point, frustrated with the labor situation, they even petitioned to the Prime Minister Office (PMO) for intervention.
Clarifying on the above, an immigration officer, in an earlier interview, said their duty sometimes causes inconvenience to the people but national security would take precedence over everything else.
Meanwhile, in a meeting conducted by the labor and employment office in Samdrup Jongkhar last week, the new regional director of labor shared his ministry’s elaborate plans to integrate the unemployed youths into the national work force.
“But I agree certain category of works, especially those labor intensive in nature, could be taken up by the Indian workers,” he said, after listening to the participants, who pointed out the challenges and also the long term health risk associated with working in a harsh condition.
Representatives from construction, hotels, manufacturing, furniture house, saw mill, workshop, aggregate and crushers supplier and mining were in attendance. As diverse as their businesses may have been, they all had one common problem, labor shortage.
Hotels for instance feature under service category and qualify for three Indian day-workers, which hoteliers say is inadequate, as Bhutanese youths are not forthcoming.
“Retaining Bhutanese nationals have been a challenge, as they easily move on seeking greener pastures,” states their submission.
At the end it all boils down to affordability, said another participant, “Skilled Indian expats cost much less than hiring a Bhutanese professional.”
The Chief Executive Officer of Druk Satir Corporation Limited, Letho cited the example of automobile workshops, which remained closed during the Indian elections, as almost all the mechanics are Indian.
“Plaster of Paris (PoP) is used in most building constructions. We produce it in Bhutan but our builders still have to hire skilled Indian workers to apply the material,” he said.
Another participant pointed out how almost all the workers developing the Mortanga Industrial site are Indian expatriates.
“The concerned agencies along with the industries can come up with programs where the youths would practically learn these skills at the site,” Letho added.
The regional secretary of BCCI, Ugyen Chophel, suggested conducting frequent skill development programs for the Bhutanese youths but until they are ready to take up these jobs, Indian day workers should be allowed to continue.
“But we encourage every business house to hire from the national work force,” said Tshongtu, a senior labor officer, adding that this meeting was called to understand and collect practical, implementable, and localized solutions from the relevant business stakeholders, mainly with the aim to address the skill gap existing in our national work force.
Meanwhile, his office has recently issued vacancy forms to all the business members, asking them to file in their requisition for staffs, which the labor department would try to provide.
In their petition to the PMO, traders had raised the issue of streamlining the 68 coolies, currently operating in the town. They are not recognized by the labor ministry, thus making them illegal, but then their removal would bring the business transactions in the town to a complete halt.
Officials from the immigration, trade and labor in an earlier meeting with the business community had all suggested that by legalizing Indian coolies, they can be streamlined but mentioned that there is no legal basis to do so at the moment. They asked the wholesalers and retailers to take the ownership and responsibility of these Indian coolies like in the past.
However, at the regional level, neither immigration nor labor office has the authority to officially legalize them.
The Regional Director of Immigration had warned the business community that the coolie system could be stopped anytime, while a labor official had added that his office won’t be able to provide any replacement for the same.
Karma Tenzin from Thimphu