Right to wages as agreed in the contract of employment is the basic right of every worker under Section 118 of the Labour Act 2007. Violation is liable for a fine at the rate of the Daily Minimum National Wage Rate to a maximum of 90 days. Yet the recent news of our young workers not paid for months after working in construction says otherwise. The news states that “the workers did not receive their wages on time” even after lodging complaints. Further, the workers could not go to the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR) to complain because “complaining consumes a lot of time and workers had to work to survive.”  Further, workers also raised their doubt as to whether the government would even help them considering their employers are powerful and influential. Thus, establishing worker’s associations may address such issues much faster and more efficiently. Further, workers will trust their association more than the government.

Section 176 of the Act gives the right to form a worker’s association if that enterprise or business or employer employs twelve or more workers. The formation of such association is aimed at representing the employees concerned in any matter affecting their rights and interests arising out of their employment and to ensure the worker’s right to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the employer relating to the terms and conditions of employment.

However, even after 14 long years since the enactment of this law, there is not a single worker’s association in the country and workers continue to suffer at the whims and fancies of the employers. In many instances, workers won’t be able to raise their grievances because an individual worker faces more challenges in raising their voice especially when the time is of essence to the worker.

If worker’s associations are formed, one of the immediate positive impacts would be the ability to exercise “collective bargaining.” International Labour Organization describes collective bargaining as fundamental to “establish fair wages and working conditions.” It states that collective bargaining generally “includes wages, working time, training, occupational health and safety and equal treatment.” Through collective bargaining, it will also help address numerous issues, rights, and responsibilities of both the employers and employees in a harmonious and amicable means.

With the Covid-19 pandemic hitting hard on the entire sector across the globe, many Bhutanese have returned and joined the Bhutanese labour market. Thousands of Indian labourers leaving Bhutan created immediate opportunities for our young Bhutanese in the construction sector though it is a physically strenuous job because of the promise of good pay and allowances. But that same promises are shattering their lives gradually possibly setting an alarm to the rest of the youth not to join this sector.

If we must encourage more young Bhutanese in these sectors and retain those who are already there, protection of worker’s rights needs better support and attention from the state. Though no worker’s associations are formed in Bhutan, on a few occasions including during the lockdown period in Punatsangchhu, the Indian workers held a peaceful protest to protect their rights. The time has come that the MoLHR must now come up with comprehensive rules on the formation of associations. The government must help establish a few associations initially and promote the associations. The merits of establishing worker’s associations in the country far outweigh demerits.

Sonam Tshering Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.