Foreign work force: An integral element of Bhutanese economy

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Kezang Namgyel

One of Bhutan’s spectacular attempt to redefine an alternative development paradigm that thrust happiness as the centerpiece of our development philosophy and our unprecedented effort in conserving its pristine natural environment has drawn numerous accolades in the international arena. We are now praised as a global leader in environmental protection. On the home front, our country in the recent times unlike any time before in the past is fast experiencing a burgeoning economic growth and expansion. For an emerging country like ours, formidable and significant stride in a myriad of socio economic dimensions have been made more vehemently in the last decades. This socio economic expeditions of Bhutan per se would not have transpired and materialized without the large segment of Indian workforce who continue to form the cornerstone workforce virtually contributing to the nation building process of Bhutan.
We are existentially and predominantly a migrant receiving country. Our dependence on foreign workers for elementary professions, both skilled and unskilled jobs, seemingly appears to continue and pervade in the foreseeable future. The boom in the hydropower, private constructions and many others have heavily forced on the dependency. The construction industry in Bhutan continues to be the fastest growing and largest employing industry in the country. Our dependence on them is exclusively attributed to the fact that majority of us do not want to do low skill, laborious jobs that are low paying. Ironically, we are heavily dependent on them while we have our own people looking for employment today. The existing foreign workers in the country is speculated to be near about close to the government’s approved ceiling. The largest segment of the construction workers in Bhutan draws its perennial source from the neighboring states of Assam and West Bengal.
Construction workers from these states in Assam and West Bengal of India are ubiquitous in almost every construction site across the length and breadth of our country. Indians by large are ‘jugadu’ by nature and they manage to work and stay withstanding numerous odds. The unfamiliar climatic conditions in the west & north, difficult and mountainous terrain in the east have not deterred these group of workers to venture and implore their livelihood prospect in Bhutan. Over the period of time they have become an integral element of Bhutanese life and economy.
One of the greatest paradoxes of our recent times that has apparently and fervently enveloped the Bhutanese populace in general has been the migratory pattern of our Bhutanese urbanites to places like Australia. Surprisingly, our country on the other hand is found to have become Australia to an increasing and large segments of construction workers from these states of Assam & West Bengal. Many of these construction workers view our country as the crescendo of hope for their survival and the land of opportunity. Understandably, both Australia’s and Bhutan’s economic pull have been found to be incredibly magnetic.
Bhutan and India share a unique bond of friendship both at the government and people’s level. In order to delve and re-discover what it empirically denotes, it may appear worthwhile to look at it from a renewed frame of mind: reality versus abstraction. What we call forest for example, in reality are the single trees that makes the forest. In the same vein, these construction workers in reality are the people that makes Indians. Construction workers in Bhutan therefore are as Indian as any other expatriates working in Bhutan and elsewhere around the globe. The depth of our relationship with these group of workers as an employer and host perhaps need rethinking and must rise higher above the normal employer-worker relationship from a rejuvenated perspective. They are Indian first and by profession are workers second, so to say. Therefore the bond of existing friendship these two countries enjoy must regard and consider our Indian construction brothers on equal footing. Less than that will be simply incorrect and disregardful. In other words, they deserve our respect as any other friends ought to be respected regardless of their class and profession.
The construction field is one of the most hazardous sector where workers are prone to accidents. Records shows that some of these construction workers in Bhutan get injured, fall ill or die as a result of workplace hazards. Few incidents have occurred in the recent times. Whilst occupational health and safety regulations are put in place and inspections intensified from time to time, health and safety issues in the construction sector still remains a challenge, posing threat to the health and safety of the workers. Occupational health and safety of our construction workers must be therefore respected and accorded top priority by Bhutanese employers across all construction sectors. The government must strictly regulate this. We need to invariably relook at their health and safety issue from a fresh frame of mind with an overwhelming sense of urgency.
We have heard unkempt and thwarting stories of our construction workers undergo great ordeal on matters surrounding delay and nonpayment of wages on time at the hands of some of our Bhutanese employers and construction owners around the country amongst others. Many of us know that back home, these workers have immigrated to work leaving behind their children, wives and family members who depend exclusively on them for their daily livelihood. Delay in their payment means uncertainties of the very survival of their dependents back home. It may not be incorrect to assume here that ‘happiness’ which we profess to the outside world, to these group of workers right under our nose would not mean anything above and beyond receiving their hard-earned payment on time. And they have all the right to be happy for having fulfilled the conditions to be happy in the land of the happiness.
We need them and without them our economic sojourn sure enough shall not be as palpable as it may seem. These construction workers, believe it or not are still the overarching and crucial work force vitally responsible for our own nation building. As a benevolent host to these workers of which we are the greatest beneficiary, we ought to respect them in ways that they truly deserve as a citizen of a country of which we regard as our greatest ally. The day they see the gap minimized between our treatment to a dollar paying tourist and the construction worker in Bhutan, perhaps then the time is ripe enough for them to say ‘happiness is a place’.