Construction workers charge exorbitant rates with shortage of labourers

Choki Wangmo

With the Covid-19 pandemic rendering many jobless, the construction sector was seen as the saviour.

There is a shortage of workers, skilled and otherwise, in the construction sector after expatriate workers got stranded across the border. The remaining foreign workers want to return home once the lockdown in India is lifted.  There will be more openings created.

However, the ground reality is much different without a pricing mechanism or a formal wage system fixed. Those in the construction sector looking for hands are left at the mercy of the exorbitant wages and charges the limited workforce is demanding.

Meanwhile, the labour ministry’s Build Bhutan Project is expected to provide  7,000 jobs to people in the construction sector. Will there be takers? Will construction owners, especially private builders be able to afford it?

Dechen Peldon’s building in Motithang is half complete. It is planned to be rented out by July. As of now, she has nine Indian labourers. The other half couldn’t return from their winter break. She is worried. Construction might take another year at this rate.

About 30 percent of internal works like electric fittings and panelling are complete, but she needs skilled workers—carpenters, plumbers and tillers or tile masters. In the last few months, she was running from pillar to post, looking for skilled Bhutanese labourers. There are plenty, but only willing to work at double the market price.

“They charge on their whims and fancies taking advantage of the shortage,” she said. Citing an example, she said an electrician charged Nu 120,000 for 70 percent of electrical fittings work left. “This is usually the cost for a whole building,” she said, adding that charges range from Nu 1 20,000 to 220,000 depending on the size of the building.

Private construction owners are finding that Bhutanese jobseekers are for one-off profit. They said Bhutanese workers don’t work at a single construction site and take up jobs at many locations simultaneously, prolonging the work and compromising the quality. “If they focus on a single site, it takes only four days to complete,” she said.

Dechen Peldon said at the time of signing a contract for a work, certified individuals come, but unskilled workers carry out works.

Shacha, who is building a house in Debsi, Thimphu has six Indian labourers at his site. For the last few weeks, he was looking for skilled workers for his site, but none of the Bhutanese came forward. He said that he approached a few groups from which most were unwilling to work at the market price. “Foreign labourers are also demanding a raise in their daily wage. They are charging Nu 900 a day now,” Shacha said.

The sector is also feeling the brunt of hiked prices of construction materials and consignment charges, among others. The landlords are willing to pay the price if the labour ministry fixes the amount for different kinds of services.

A site engineer in Thimphu, Bhim Bhadhur Biswa, said that Bhutanese demand higher wages compared to foreign workers. At his site, there are 10 Indian and 17 Bhutanese workers. Bhutanese are either masons or helpers.

He said that the Bhutanese workers lacked confidence, patience, and did not want to take risks. However, the quality of works differed according to different types of work. “Bhutanese are good at masonry and Indians are good in plastering works,” he said.

President of Construction Development Board, Thinlay Gyamtsho, said that the current scenario was a labour force issue and pricing was difficult to control. He said that even if there were fixed pricing systems, private builders would take advantage of the shortage in the market depending on the market’s ability to supply labourers.

The service providers, however, refused to comment.

About 40,000 job seekers have registered on the labour ministry’s job portal from which 25,000 were laid, sent on unpaid leave, or partially paid due to Covid-19 impact.

The ministry’s rapid assessment of skilled and unskilled labour force found that there was a need for workers in 20,000 numerous public and private projects in the construction sector. The ministry is also looking into training around 2,000 for different certificate levels and reskill 800 technical training institute graduates.

The government initiative to incentivise the construction sector with topping up the wages for employees might encourage both employers and job seekers.

As of now there are both shortages of jobs and labourers. Most of the construction works across Thimphu are on hold.