Feeding the workforce rendered jobless by lockdown

Choki Wangmo

The nationwide lockdown, which enters the 11th day today, has brought construction work to a complete halt worrying builders who have deadlines to meet and loans to repay.

The concern now is feeding the idle workers. Expatriate workers who live at the worksite in temporary shelters are paid weekly wages to purchase essentials and vegetables to last for a week.

A private construction company in Paro with 100 foreign workers supplied essential items in bulk twice in the last 10 days. The cost of the essential is borne by the company and excludes the daily wage ranging from Nu 700 to 800.

A construction owner in Thimphu said that his 20 workers at the site had been idle for the last 10 days. He had supplied enough rice and dal for them but the vegetables supplied by the authorities were not sufficient. “Some of them requested me to let them leave as they don’t earn,” he said, adding that for now he had been managing well but the future would depend on the lockdown.

Another owner said that his 10 workers had been adhering to the lockdown protocols and had been giving them cellular data, continuous supply of ration and even beverages. In an enclosed campus, he said the workers had enough space to move unlike those cramped in other construction sites.

Some are worried as they had paid huge advances just before the lockdown was announced. A building owner said that her 18 workers were getting restless without work. “It is becoming expensive to pay them even the weekly wages,” she said. The owner bought Nu 14,000 worth of essentials online yesterday. “It is a lockdown and we have to help them,” she said. Others are mulling to not pay the weekly wages and pay only enough to purchase vegetables and essentials.

Some are wishing if the government let them work without mingling with other people. “I am left only with the interior work,” said a building owner whose building is nearing completion. “They needn’t go out and all of them stay together. If the lockdown continues, it is going to be hard for them and us.”

Meanwhile, the Jaiprakash Associates Limited (Jaypee Group), an Indian construction company working with the Punatshangchhu-II hydroelectric project (PII) also provided food to around 40 truckers who were stranded in Wangdue due to the lockdown.

The truckers were carrying cement for the project.

According to Jaypee project manager, K K Sood, the truckers were stranded for about six days in Wangdue.

He added that while the truckers stayed in their own vehicle, meals were arranged by the company.

With permission from the dzongkhag, the truckers left for Pemagatshel on August 17.

Another eight trucks carrying cement are today at the project site. These truckers have been stranded in Wangdue for three days.

As of last month, there are about 23,000 foreign workers across the country.

The government discontinued construction activities on August 11 considering the impending Covid-19 threats posed by the movement of people at construction sites.

Before the lockdown, the labour ministry had started recruiting skilled and professional foreign workers to fill in the gaps in the sector. Although the ministry received hundreds of applications from builders and construction owners, the recruitment was based on the capacity of health facilities, availability of quarantine facilities, and availability of test kits among others.

Most of the construction sites across the capital had been on hold due to shortage of skilled labourers as most of the workers left for their homes.

Additional reporting by Phurpa Lhamo from Wangdue 

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