The labour ministry has come out with a bold decision. Mindful of the unemployment problem and skills development of Bhutanese, it will not issue or renew permits to expatriate workers in six occupational groups. The decision comes into effect next month.
This is a commendable job. At a time when we are persuading jobseekers to look for jobs outside the civil service -in the private sector, what the small job market doesn’t need is expatriate workers doing jobs that Bhutanese can do. Looking at the occupation group specified, it looks possible that there are enough Bhutanese who can fill the space. There is no dearth of engineers, trained teachers and even architects.
The labour ministry is under pressure to create jobs. It is not only their mandate. Reasoned decisions indicate that jobs could be created through policy interventions. There will be grievances. But the labour ministry should not budge. It should not because the decision has longer-term interest in mind. Some are even speculating if an elected government would come out with such decisions. We had, in the past, banned import of alcohol and furniture and then lifted it under pressure from interest groups.
How long can we rely on expatriate workers? In areas where Bhutanese are short, we will keep hiring and recruiting. We have done this in the past. We need not worry about political tensions. Our development partners want us to stand on our own feet. They will be happy to support our decisions.
This should, in fact, be the start of a long list of occupation the ministry should look into. The construction industry is the biggest industry in terms of employing expatriate workers. It would, perhaps, not make sense to tell our university graduates to work as construction workers, but there are opportunities. The industry demands skilled people. They need, masons, carpenters, plumbers and many more.
Our technical and vocational education centres are trying to create a pool of skilled and semi-skilled workers to meet the demand of the construction sector. Hundreds graduate every year, but they end up working in hotels or doing clerical jobs because the jobs are all taken.
That hiring expatriate worker is cheaper is a myth. Those in the construction business know that workers from Falakata or Dupguri are aware of Bhutan’s situation. They know how to bargain. If Bhutanese have the skill and willingness to work, the construction sector is not a bad sector.
At the same time, training centres should be more realistic in producing skilled workers. If trainees are learning their skills on, for instance, on a 1963 die-cast machine to apply that to a 2017 make vehicle, there will be “mismatch”.
What we need is to narrow that gap too.