Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Although the government announced that employers could import required skilled foreign workers several months ago, it was only on October 1 the first batch of foreign workers could enter the country.

As of October 5, 42 foreign workers entered from Phuentsholing. On October 1, 52 foreign workers entered from Paro. They are all undergoing the 21-day quarantine period.


Constructions in Phuentsholing are suspended for lack of workers

As per the government’s protocol for entry of foreign workers and other foreigners into Bhutan, all individuals found medically fit will undergo the 21-day mandatory quarantine at the designated quarantine facilities. While in the facilities, the foreign workers must adhere to the guidelines and SOP for quarantine for Covid-19.

They will undergo testing as per the existing national quarantine testing protocol.

Further, as per the protocol, “The foreign workers will be released on the 22nd day upon testing negative for Covid-19 antibody test. Any positive antibody test shall be confirmed by the RT-PCR and the decision to release or extend quarantine or isolate shall be made by the ministry of health (MOH).”

The employers bringing in foreign workers will have to bear the full cost of Covid-19 tests, mandatory quarantine, and treatment.

The government subsidised cost for a Rapid Antigen Test is Nu 1,000, Nu 1,000 for a Rapid Antibody Test, and Nu 3,000 for an RT-PCR test.

The employers will also pay for the treatment (including the testing and de-isolation) for foreign workers if he or she tests positive for Covid-19 during or after the quarantine period while in the country. The treatment for Covid-19 will be provided as per the “clinical management protocol” of the MoH.

Meanwhile, after the border gates were closed on March 23, most of the daily wage workers in Phuentsholing, who were from across the border, couldn’t enter the town. This left most of the private firms without workers.

Construction sector was the most affected with hundreds of government and private construction projects stalled without skilled workers.

After the government announced employers could bring in foreign workers on their own expenditure, many organisations had registered.

For hydropower projects (HPP), about 199 foreign workers were registered for entry from Phuentsholing, while 223 were registered from Gelephu and three from Samdrupjongkhar.

In regards to non-HPP, 166 foreign workers were registered for entry from Phuentsholing. About 12 workers were registered for such projects from Gelephu and 52 from Samdrupjongkhar. Project DANTAK had also registered 21 and 16 workers for entry from Phuentsholing and Samdrupjongkhar, respectively.

However, the number of foreign workers’ registration had increased, a labour official said.


Contractors’ view

Although importing foreign workers is now allowed, not many employers are planning to bring in foreign workers. It is too expensive, they say. Bringing in just one foreign worker would mean an expenditure ranging from Nu 30,000 to Nu 40,000.

The proprietor of KD Construction, Kado Drukpa, who had not been able to execute his work since the closing of the gate said that it had become necessary to bring in foreign workers. He said the thromde was pressurising to complete the work.

“But bringing in the labourers and keeping them for 21 days’ quarantine will be an expensive affair,” he said.“I will also have to pay their daily wages. And if the labourers test positive, it will be extra expenditure.”

Kado Drukpa said that after the gate closure, he even tried to resume the work with the labourers who were left in Phuentsholing but they left and jeopardised the work.

Another contractor from Pasakha, Jigme Nidup, said that he was in need of about 30 construction workers. Keeping them in quarantine would cost him more than Nu 1 million (M), considering (approximately) Nu 40,000 expenditure for one worker.

“In my opinion, I would suggest allowing to bring in the labourers and keep them within the construction site and contain the site,” he said, adding that the government can also provide de-suups to monitor. “I would even pay the De-Suup for their duty.”

The contractor said that the employers bringing in the foreign workers today were all large companies who could afford it. Small construction firms and employers would not be able to afford to bring the workers, he pointed.

“Should we be allowed to camp our labourers within the company, our expenditure will be drastically minimised.”

Should there be any positive cases, Jigme Nidup, said that all other containment and safety protocols could be put in place within the construction site.