Commuters along the Indian Embassy road at Hejo were yesterday shocked to see expatriate construction workers protesting and threatening to walk back home from Thimphu. Most were worried to see the commotion and the crowd when Covid-19 norms are still to be followed. The only sight of people coming out on streets and protesting, for many Bhutanese, is only in movies or television.
The construction workers who had been in the country for months wanted to go home. The closure of the border and the nationwide lockdown has caused inconvenience to our friends from the neighbouring states of West Bengal. Missing parents and loved ones back at home, the frustration of getting confined in huts for 21 straight days and not getting onions, fish or chickens added to the problem. The festival season is not far away and everybody wants to go home.
The crowd was controlled and dispersed with the help of police within a few hours. Everything ended well. The workers approached the right place, the Indian Embassy, which had been helping repatriate workers who wanted to go home. It was an additional headache during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Embassy had come to the rescue of workers and the Bhutanese employers both in facilitating their journey home and avoiding problems here.
There are thousands of workers waiting to go home. During normal times, it is the time expatriate workers take leave to go with their savings and celebrate the numerous festivals. It is called the puja season, from now until the end of October. Covid-19 has disrupted the plans.
As we ease the lockdown, the issue of thousands of workers wanting to go on back deserves some attention. In fact, our authorities should take this up as a priority. The workers are here to earn, save and go back to their families. We are talking about hundreds of young men who are frustrated by the lockdown. There is no point holding them back even if it is at the cost of delayed works.
The thekadhars (contractors) and the construction owners should understand that too. Most of the workers had no issue with the government or the Indian Embassy. They were complaining of building owners not paying them or thekadhars not being honest after receiving payment from the owners. It may sound like an internal problem, but there are repercussions.
We might have relaxed the restriction, but the threat still remains. That’s why the health minister and her team are insisting on the Covid-19 prevention protocols. When angry or frustrated mobs come out in droves not respecting established norms, it is a risk. Our friends from across the border are used to coming out in groups and flaunting rules. They are even complaining about the shortage of onions or its price. The mob culture is there and the situation is ripe for them to gather and demand.
Let us be honest. We need the hands of the expatriate workers. Notwithstanding the numerous programmes or incentives to encourage Bhutanese to take up blue-collar jobs, it will take ages to replace them. We need not give into their demands, but we cannot hold them back against their will.