Multi-sectoral taskforce formed to address the issues in the foreign worker management 

Younten Tshedup  

Deep inside the rubble and behind the green shades of curtains, is a decaying investment made in millions.  One of the hardest hit sectors by the ongoing pandemic is the construction industry.

Many Bhutanese constructions are still dependent on foreign labourers and with the government restricting the import of foreign workers in the light of the pandemic, it has never been a harder time for those in the construction business.

Although the government has allowed the entry of skilled and professionals workers since June last year, those in the business say that the recruitment procedure had considerably increased, causing equal or more damage.

With his building almost nearing completion, a proprietor in Thimphu has been stuck for months processing paperwork to bring in some foreign workers to complete his house.

Requesting anonymity, he said that the process that took just over 24 hours before now took anywhere between three weeks to a month. “And if we add the 21-day quarantine period, it goes to anywhere between 40 days to two months in the getting the workers.”


The approval process

Before the pandemic, anyone requiring foreign labourers had to submit their requisition to the labour ministry.  Using an online portal, the ministry, after verifying the documents, submitted the list to the immigration office in the border towns for the recruitment process.

The turnaround time from the date of application to the approval from the labour ministry was 24 hours.  Today it takes at least a week for the ministry to verify the documents, manually.

Once the verification is completed by the ministry, it is forwarded to the immigration department in Thimphu for another round of evaluation, which takes another week.

After the evaluation and verification, the immigration department sends back the final list to the labour ministry, which then forwards the list to the Covid-19 taskforce for the final approval.  The layer of processes takes anywhere between 21 days to a month before the actual recruitment happens.

The new procedure was put in place in the light of pandemic as physical verification of labourers at the points of entry, which used to happen before, became irrelevant and everything had to be documented on paper and online systems.


The repercussion

Contractors and house owners said that the longer the approval process took, the higher the cost of construction became. “We have loans with banks and, with the interest waiver coming to an end, the implication would be huge if we’re not able to repay.”

A contractor said that, as the cost of construction goes up, it is offloaded to the tenants in the form of high rental charges, impacting not just the owners but others in the long run.

He said that, in the absence of foreign workers, he tried recruiting local labourers. “But the problem is that local workers aren’t skilled. Without skills, employing them just for the sake also adds to the construction cost.”

Another contractor said as the labourers had to wait for a longer duration, many of them were not available when the approval came in and, in the process, they had to start all over again. “If we’ve requested for 20 workers, by the time we get the approval, more than half of them would be gone.”

Frustrated and tired, she said that some of the builders she knew had already sold their half-constructed buildings to others.

Contractors suggested streamlining the approval system and bringing down the turnover time at least by a week or two. “This can be done with a simple tweak in the system,” said a contractor.

He said that, if the labour ministry and immigration department could pool resources and make a system accessible to both parties, it would easily cut down substantial time in the verification process.

Layog Lyonpo (labour minister) Ugyen Dorji, said that the current procedure was put in place following the notification on the restriction of import of foreign workers from the national Covid-19 taskforce in the wake of the pandemic.

Lyonpo said that, unlike in the past, the approval process during the pandemic had to be carefully handled, adding that the identities of the workers and the undertakings had to be made absolutely sure of, in case of a problem later.

The minister explained that the reason for the longer duration was because of the backlog at the ministry, where hundreds of applications were submitted on a daily basis.

The limited number of people and the need to manually examine and verify every document also added to the prolonged duration, he added.

“However, it doesn’t mean we can’t streamline the system and expedite the approval process,” he said, adding that, to address these issues, a multisectoral foreign workers’ management taskforce was set up to deliberate and come up with recommendations covering all aspects of foreign worker’s management in the country.

“Yes, we understand it’s a lengthy process and people are frustrated. But it’s not like we’ve ignored the problem. We’re going all out to do what we can within the existing system and the limitations.”

However, Lyonpo added that, given the current scenario, addressing and expediting the approval process only might not solve the entire issue. “So far, we’ve given approval to bring in about 7,000 foreign workers but, on the ground, less than 3,000 have come in.”

He said that this could also be from limited quarantine space in places like Phuentsholing that cannot accommodate all the approved workers at a time. “With the taskforce in place, we’ll be addressing the issues, but for now, we can’t say how soon or how fast, as it would ultimately depend upon the behaviour of the pandemic.”

In the meantime, contractors also shared that they could help the government in coming up with temporary shelters where labourers could be quarantined.

Lyonpo Ugyen Dorji said that, with the vaccination starting soon, things could improve in a gradual and careful manner. “But for now, I really empathise with the contractors. As I interact with them almost on a daily basis, I can feel the pain, fear, and anxiety that they go through as their works are held in this manner,” he said. “But Covid is something that we can’t just ignore. Our priority, above all other things, has to be Covid, and that is the approach we have taken so far.”

Lyonpo added that nobody wins in the Covid situation. “Everybody is at a loss — the government and citizens alike. Given this inevitability and something that we don’t have any control over, I hope the contractors will take little of the perseverance and fortitude to face this hard situation. With vaccination rolling out soon, there should be a light at the end of the tunnel.”