The COVID-19 labor reality check

With 2,000 Bhutanese recently registering to work with the Punatsangchhu-II Project, it finally seems like the country’s aversion to blue-collared jobs is seeing a paradigm shift and the process of building of a national work force that will take care of its labor needs especially in the construction sector has been set in motion.

COVID19 was a reality check that reminded us how far we were lacking-from agricultural self-sufficiency to much required labor to sometimes basic civic sense. While the pandemic brought out both the best and worst in us, we cannot sit back and cool our heels thinking that everything will be taken care of by the so-called “authorities.” If we are to make the civil, social and economic machinery work, the people should and must be involved. Along with leaders at the decision making levels to the menial workers and commoners, everyone is needed to make it happen.

We saw this when foreign laborers started an exodus from the country. Besides hydropower projects which are huge government investments, the private sector and construction business started facing acute shortage of labor. And with layoffs increasing across the cross section of society, Bhutanese, especially unemployed youth were suddenly actually willing to take up work that required their hands and mechanical skills. Suddenly, it seemed like there were scores of them willing to work in construction sites to hydropower projects, as delivery men to volunteers.

What we realized during these times is that attitude towards work makes a whole lot of difference. Some might be more privileged and luckier than others. They might sit behind computer screens and sign documents or order from the tables, but those who took up and are taking up menial work are not lesser human beings or to be looked down upon. In fact, they come as a saving grace.

While past efforts to engage our people especially youth in blue-collared jobs have met with failure or lukewarm responses, the one who eats of the sweat off his brow, knows how hard but equally sweet his labor is. He has worked hard. His conscience is clear. He is making clean money. And he eats from his own table. Who wouldn’t be proud of that?

But the authorities should also realize that though this is a progressive development, they should not be lax in encouraging it. Those who come forward to labor should be rewarded with incentives and it is exceedingly crucial that skills development programs be put in place and skills up-gradation provided to these upcoming workers.

This could in fact be a sort of movement where the country can slowly phase out foreign workers and build a local workforce with powerful potential. The Bhutanese are a bright people, and with requisite discipline and concerted efforts applied to the required discipline, we should soon be independent in many sectors including agricultural production, labor pool and areas where we now hire expats. There is talent in the country-whether it is brains or brawn. And we don’t want to drain either of those through lack of recognition, reward or validation.