Foreign workers’ conundrums for construction sector

The construction sector says that the labor scarcity is due to the lack of quarantine facilities

The limited quarantine facilities in the border towns is causing labor shortage for contractors and those into private constructions, divulged the Executive Director of the Construction Association of Bhutan (CAB), Tshering Yonten.

According to the CAB, the construction of multiple temporary quarantine facilities in high risk areas across Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar and Samtse has not helped the construction sector.  

“We were disheartened to know that the least preference will be given to the contractors. The quarantine facilities use only 60% of the capacity, when it has a total capacity of 200 people,” Tshering Yonten said.

“By calculating the duration and capacity, we calculated that it will take a minimum of three months to get our turns, but by then construction sites will fail due to the need for workers,” he said.

According to him, if they wait, then the contractors won’t be able to complete work on time. Due to which a few contractors were already terminated by the procuring agencies.

 “The disparity in wages between the Bhutanese and foreign laborers is also causing an issue,” the Executive Director said.

Currently, foreign laborers charge around Nu 700 to Nu 750 per day, while Bhutanese workers charge Nu 1,000 to Nu 1,200 per day approximately.

“Another issue is that laborers in a few construction sites have started demanding an increased wage and. Some threaten the contractor to leave the site for another contractor, who is paying double the wage because of the urgency of the work,” Tshering Yonten said.

However, Labour and Human Resources Minister Karma Dorji said that foreign laborers cannot shift working from one contractor to another until they exit the country and complete their cooling period.

“No permit to employ a foreigner shall be varied or transferred to another person without the approval of the Chief Labour Administrator,” states Section 221 of the Labour and Employment Act of Bhutan 2007.

The minister added, “We have the Build Bhutan Project (BBP) which trains candidates in various construction trades and engages them in various construction firms and through the BBP we are positive the labor shortage won’t be an issue soon.”

However, a contractor based in Phuentsholing, who wished to remain anonymous, said obtaining foreign laborers is becoming harder with each passing day.

“Cost escalation is there, but it can still be managed. But we don’t get approval for enough labor required. Even if we get official approval, we will have to wait for the quarantine facility, while our workers wait in Jaigaon at our expenses,” he said, adding that if the government makes it easier to let in the foreign workers, the price of labor will gradually fall.

“If the government makes it easier for us to apply for a new quarantine facility, it will be a big comfort to the sector, who are presently paying around Nu 25,000 per laborer for 21 days of quarantine in hotels. This is twice as expensive as the new quarantine facility,” the contractor said.

“I kept my workers at a 3 star hotel because I couldn’t get other hotels as they were all packed. Paying Nu 1,100 per person for 21 days, I had to pay Nu 207,900 for nine laborers,” he added.

Additionally, the increase in the cost of construction materials has also caused distress to those in the construction sector. They say the costs of materials have increased as high as 90% since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The cost of transportation of construction materials from the Indian borders to the construction sites has doubled by transship of materials,” said Tshering Yonten, adding that the construction sector in the country still needs about 3,000 laborers.

“The demand is too high and local workers don’t have skills; they don’t want to work overtime and they demand a high rate.”

Meanwhile, the CAB has written an appeal letter, requesting the government to allow them to use other hotels as quarantine facilities to bring in foreign workers.

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu