In a significant move to boost local employment and ensure workplace safety, the Department of Labour (DoL) in Bhutan has launched special inspections of private house construction projects. These inspections, which commenced on 12th September are aimed at exploring opportunities for engaging local plumbers and electricians while enforcing labor laws and regulations.
Eight inspection teams, each consisting of two members, have been conducting inspections within the Thimphu region. The teams have been granted access to workplaces, facilitating interviews with owners, contractors, and foreign workers. An official from the Department of Labour said that the house builders have generally been cooperative, supporting the idea of outsourcing plumbing and electrical work to locals and youths.
Several instances of non-compliance with labor laws have also been uncovered during the inspections, particularly concerning workplace safety and the misuse of work permits. The official said, “Many employers and foreign workers claim to be unaware of the restrictions on foreign workers in plumbing and electrical occupations, leading to violations of labour laws.”
Efforts are now underway to transition from the existing closed occupation category approach to a more flexible system based on a Critical Skills Shortage list. This approach seeks to identify high-demand occupations that lack sufficient representation in the local workforce, allowing foreign workers to fill these skill gaps when necessary. “Certain occupations will not be entirely closed to foreign workers but will be opened up in cases where local skills are scarce or when local workers are unwilling to undertake specific roles,” the official added.
The restrictions on foreign workers in the plumbing and electrical trades are deemed essential for striking a balance between local and foreign employment, ensuring employment stability, and fostering socio-economic progress while harnessing the potential of the local workforce.
The official also added that many Bhutanese electricians and plumbers are eagerly stepping up to fill these roles. Immediate action is being taken to address violations related to workplace safety during inspections to ensure a comprehensive and efficient process.
In cases of work permit misuse, both the offending foreign worker and employer are summoned to the labor department. Initial violations result in employers receiving an Improvement Notice (IN), serving as an official warning, while foreign workers commit to not repeating the offense. For subsequent violations, penalties are imposed as per the relevant sections of the Labor and Employment Act.
Meanwhile, the shift from a closed occupation category rule to a critical skills shortage list approach means that plumbing and electrician professions will be safeguarded for locals, with the flexibility to involve foreigners when local supply falls short.
This initiative is expected to generate more employment opportunities for Bhutanese citizens and retain income within the country, reducing the outflow in the form of remittances. “The primary goal is to reduce reliance on foreign workers and provide locally trained plumbers and electricians with access to employment opportunities,” the official said.
Talking about the challenges faced by inspection teams, there haven’t been any major issues reported so far. However, dealing with workplace confrontations remains a significant challenge for labor officials when carrying out their tasks, especially in the informal labour matket, dominated by the employment of foreign workers in private house constructions.
“Nonetheless, things are gradually improving,” the official said adding that according to a recent monitoring report this year, out of the 849 interviews conducted nationwide, 82% of employers expressed their support and confidence in the skills of Bhutanese plumbers and electricians.
The official shared that some of the Bhutanese house owners are willing to hire Bhutanese workers as it is seen as advantageous due to their specialized trades, expertise, and their availability for future maintenance work.
The Department of Labor is actively working on conducting mass inspections to identify and rectify violations related to work permit misuse, encouraging employers to prioritize hiring locally trained plumbers and electricians, facilitating the formation of local groups of plumbers and electricians, and connecting them with construction owners.
This initiative goes beyond merely enforcing labor laws and regulations; it entails close collaboration with hundreds of local skilled workers to boost the local workforce in these crucial trades. The official said, “Restricting foreigners from certain occupations is insufficient; instead, it aims to provide home builders with alternative sources of skilled workers to ensure that construction projects proceed without hindrance.”
Nidup Lhamo from Thimphu