Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering has said the government has done enough to resolve issues plaguing the Earn and Learn programme in Japan.

However, with about 300 youth returning home by June according to the parents’ committee, the problem appears to be only growing. As more than 100 have already arrived in Bhutan, there will be less than 300 youth in Japan.

The youth must get their visa renewed to extend their stay in Japan, for which there are only two possible means– either to secure a regular job or re-enroll for a new course. Both options seem difficult even with help from the government.

The term of the visas is tagged with that of their courses. This means that those returning home early will be university graduates since their language courses are for two years compared with that of class 12 graduates whose course duration is four years.

If they fail to get their visa renewed, the youth would be forced to return home even after having availed the recently introduced loan deferment scheme and despite the government’s wish to keep them in Japan.

At the Friday Meet on March 22, the prime minister admitted that it was not easy for the government to get the visas renewed since the youth need to secure regular jobs to apply for renewal of their work visas. “We will try to help them find jobs. We don’t know how much we will be able to do (on getting their visas renewed),” he said.

Japan, he said, was a host to “hundreds of thousands” of overseas youth under similar programmes and that it was difficult for the Japan government to give special treatment to Bhutanese youth alone.

Labour minister Ugyen Dorji told Kuensel that the government has requested the Japanese government to provide support to Bhutanese youth for renewal of visas and finding jobs. “It is with the Japanese government’s authority to take necessary action on our request,” he said.

The deferment of the loan repayment deadline is one of the significant actions the government took towards easing the problems faced by the youth in Japan. However, the grace period may not benefit the youth who were sent earlier since it is applicable only until the completion of the language course.

A private lawyer representing the parents’ committee, Ngawang Tobgay said about 300 students are planning to return home on completion of their courses. Even as the labour ministry is collecting the names  of youth who are interested to apply for the grace period, about 30 students completed their courses earlier this month, according to him.

Ngawang Tobgay said the visas should be renewed immediately since the courses are being completed, if there was a need to do so. He said it was the Bhutan Employment Overseas’ (BEO) responsibility to renew the visa since the students were expected to continue working in Japan at least until the loans were repaid.

The government denies claims that the loan deferment will not be useful, saying that the arrangement reduces the financial burden on students before they get a fulltime job. The loan deferment order was signed on March 1, and by the time Bhutan Development Bank Limited implements the scheme, many students would have completed their courses.

By March 18, about 230 had registered for the loan deferment scheme. The deadline has been extended until May 31 and the list of applicants will be forwarded to the bank, according to the labour ministry.

The parents committee argues that the grace period would not make much difference in terms of the financial burden on the youth unless interests were waived during the grace period. Ngawang Tobgay claims that the loan would increase from Nu 700,000 to Nu 1 million after the grace period and accordingly the interest amount.

However, the government has ruled out any kind of waivers, including the interests, saying it would set a wrong precedent. The total interests that would accrue during the grace period would come to Nu 122 million, according to the prime minister.

Even as the prime minister said that he does not want to dig into the past, the allegations of deception by the BEO is likely to turn into a legal battle as the parents’ committee are preparing to file a case against BEO

The parents’ committee president, Sonam Tshering, after returning from a fact-finding tour to Japan told Kuensel that the committee has gathered enough evidence to sue BEO, which implemented the programme in collaboration with the labour ministry.

The government also denies lack of action against the director general (DG) of labour and human resources department, Sherab Tenzin, who was involved in the programme that was initiated and implemented during the last government’s time.

The prime minister said that the rumours that the DG and the government had colluded were untrue. He said allegations against the DG were pertaining to administrative lapses that needed to be dealt by the Royal Civil Service Commission.

One of the officials from the parents committee said that the lack of inaction from the government prompted them to think that the government was protecting the BEO for reasons he did not reveal. BEO was established by businessmen Tshewang Jurmi and Tenzin Rigden.

BEO denies that it has cheated the students. Speaking at a panel discussion organised by BBS on March 21, Tenzin Rigden said the BEO sent the students in good faith. “It’s too early to conclude that the programme has been a failure.”

Tenzin Rigden said it was natural that a few would not do well when the number of youth was large. He said the programme was started after carefully studying its pros and cons under the purview of the labour ministry.

One of the parents, whose son has returned home, said that not all youth were doing bad and that some of them were earning enough to sustain in Japan. He said he had not deposited loan installments for the last five months after his son returned home.

The eight percent interest, he said, was too high given the difficulty to meet the expenses in Japan. “The best option is to waive the interest for the grace period,” he said.

MB Subba