Labour department sees increasing wage-related disputes amongst foreign workers

The Department of Labour (DoL) under the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Employment (MoICE) has been receiving complaints related to wages amongst foreign workers lately.

An official from DoL shared that there were incidences where workers have taken huge advances against the work progress and the department had been convincing the worker to work till they liquidate the advances or else they need to refund the advances.

“There were also incidences when the contractors had taken advances and not paid to the workers in which case the department had been informing the employers to make the payment and release the workers as the workers came in the name of the employers and the department doesn’t recognize the involvement of the labour contractor,” the official said.

According to the DoL, whenever there is complaint with regard to wage dispute, the department informs the employers on the issue and discuss together with the complainant, employers and the department.

“The department had been reviewing the cases thoroughly and the department was able to resolve the issues amicably,” the official said. For instance, according to the department, the wage dispute is a straight forward case and the department had been dealing in the best interest of both the parties.

Meanwhile, the number of foreign workers to be recruited by an employer depends upon their capabilities, wherein the maximum number of foreign workers to be recruited by an employer is maximum to 25 for private house construction in urban areas, and 10 for private house construction in rural areas during the pre-covid era.

Similarly, for the government awarded projects, the number of foreign workers to be employed depends on the total project cost and the department sanctions 50% of the labour as foreign workers and 50% to be Bhutanese workers.

While the maximum duration of foreign workers shall be for one year initial and can be renewed to maximum of three years, according to the Ministry.

Meanwhile, the Ministry stated that the major challenges in the Bhutanese economy to replace the foreign workers is the unavailability of enough workforce to take up construction works. “The employers opt for foreign workers because of cheap, ready and available laborer from across the border.”

The official from the DoL said that the mentality of Bhutanese employers is also that the foreign workers are skilled in the construction works as the foreign workers were engaged from the first instance of the developmental activities in the country.

In addition, the official said that recently with the initiatives of the Ministry, the department did a constant monitoring of construction industries, advocating the employers to recruit local electricians and plumbers in the country.

The official also shared that as the Ministry had not accorded approval of foreign electricians and plumbers, employing foreign electricians and plumbers violates the provisions of the Labour and Employment Act of Bhutan, 2007 and its Regulations.

However, the DoL stated that with the engagement of about 153 local plumbers and electricians, the local workers were able to take up the electrical and plumbing works in the construction sector.

In addition, the official from the DoL also shared that most of the retaining walls and drains are carried out by local workers. “The engagement of Bhutanese workforce in the construction sector is on a rise and with the experiences of current local electricians and plumbers, there might be more Bhutanese working in the construction sector.”

Meanwhile, the Ministry also stated that considering the country’s economy, there isn’t any maximum ceiling for any particular construction projects. However, the number of foreign workers for other sectors are  based on ratio of 60% Bhutanese workers to 40% foreign workers.

In addition, the DoL also stated that the Ministry will uplift the foreign worker ceiling for interim measure and when the country’s economy improves, the Ministry might also impose the restriction of foreign workers ceiling after thorough study of the situation.

According to MoICE, the current Daily National Minimum Wage Rate is Nu 215 per day and it applies to all irrespective of the nationalities. “There isn’t a separate wage rate for different categories of workers.”

However, a recent notification from the Ministry of Finance (MoF) dated November 22, 2023 has revised the wage rate between Nu 400 to Nu 600 per day depending upon different skill categories.

The revision will come into effect from October this year.

Sherab Dorji from Thimphu