In recent years, Bhutan has seen a significant increase in the number of foreign workers entering its labor market, with the construction sector being the prime area of demand. A report released by the Department of Labour under the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Employment sheds light on the trends and implications of this surge in foreign labor.
The report reveals that the construction sector has dominated the influx of foreign workers, accounting for a staggering 84.61% of approved foreign labor permits. Within this sector, a substantial 60% were approved as masons, underscoring the demand for skilled labor in various industries.
Among the various nationalities, Indian workers make up the largest group, comprising approximately 99.1% of the total foreign workers in Bhutan. This statistic, as stated in the report, indicates the strong ties and economic cooperation between Bhutan and India.
Meanwhile, as of June 2023, the total number of foreign workers granted work permits in Bhutan reached 140,830, raising concerns among some observers about the potential impact on the country’s labor market and demographics. However, the report clarifies that this approved number doesn’t necessarily reflect the exact count of foreign workers present in the country at any given time. The dynamic nature of labor migration means that workers enter and exit the country frequently.
Additionally, this surge represents a remarkable increase from 2021 when only 18,688 foreign workers were issued work permits. The majority of these workers in 2021 were approved for craft and related trade occupations. However, in 2023, there has been a shift, with the construction sector receiving the highest approval rate.
The report highlights the fact that the number of foreign workers in Bhutan can vary significantly over time. The actual count of foreign workers inside the country during the last week of June 2023 was recorded as 30,407, underscoring the fluctuating nature of this statistic.
Geographically, Thimphu Dzongkhag, the capital city, holds the highest concentration of foreign workers, reflecting its role as the economic and administrative hub of the country.
The distribution of foreign workers across sectors shows the construction sector in the lead at 84.61%, followed by manufacturing (6.76%) and services (5.07%). Other sectors like hospitality, energy, trade, and communication have smaller percentages of foreign workers.
While India dominates the foreign workforce, Bhutan also hosts workers from other countries such as Japan, Bangladesh, and Thailand, enhancing the cultural diversity of the labor market.
Meanwhile, Foreign Worker Recruitment Agents (FWRAs) have played a crucial role in facilitating the entry of foreign workers into Bhutan’s labor market. These agents connect employers with prospective workers and streamline the hiring process, ensuring compliance with qualifications and necessary documentation. Phuentsholing has emerged as a key hub for FWRAs, highlighting its significance in foreign worker recruitment.
According to the general observers, “The influx of foreign workers into Bhutan brings both opportunities and challenges. While they contribute to meeting labor demands, there are concerns about their long-term impact on the country’s economy and society. The government and stakeholders will need to carefully manage this influx to ensure a balanced and sustainable labor market,”
Furthermore, individuals from the construction sector have expressed that hiring foreign workers appears to be the best option, as has been mentioned numerous times before. Bhutanese workers, unfortunately, have not demonstrated the same level of efficiency as foreign workers. However, there is a shortage of both young individuals and workers who are willing to engage in the construction sector.
“While the significant influx of foreign workers raises concerns, given that we must heavily depend on them for a majority of construction projects, ultimately, we find it beneficial to employ foreign workers.”
Meanwhile, as of June 2023, the Department of Labor has granted work permits to 117,977 skilled workers, 20,630 unskilled workers, and 2,493 professional workers.
Tshering Pelden from Thimphu