…only one out of 23 households expressed desire to have more children during pilot study

Yangyel Lhaden

The Department of Labour (DoL) has permitted the entry of foreign workers from June exclusively as foreign child caregivers (FCCs) as a means to encourage families to have more children and reduce the responsibilities of working parents in caring for their kids.

Out of the 85 individuals who applied, only 42 FCCs have been approved and brought into the country through the department. According to a DoL official, the Department of Immigration’s (DoI) stringent vetting process, which prioritises security concerns, has resulted in not all FCCs applicants being able to enter the country.

Bhutan’s fertility rate is declining, dropping from six children per woman in 1982 to 1.9 in 2017, and further decreasing to 1.8 last year. This indicates that a majority of couples are now having only one to two children. Bhutan needs at least 2.5 births per woman according to the global standard for population replacement.

“Foreign child caregivers have become necessary now since many working parents cannot find one from within the country,” Industry,Commerce,and Employment Minister, Karma Dorji, said. “With competitive economic situations, working parents are required to be at work and they find it difficult to bring up their kids without a child caregiver at home.”

In the past, foreign domestic helpers were not an approved category of work due to the risk that may occur to our country’s peace, sovereignty, and security, as well as to reduce dependence on foreign workers.

The first proposal to employ non-national as domestic helpers came up in 50th session of the National Assembly in 1979 by the Chimis of Chengmari and Samtse. The issue was discussed in several past sessions of the National Assembly but was not approved owing to “potential long-term implications”.

“Earlier many attempts were made by private sectors to have a professional set up to cater to child care, but it couldn’t succeed leading to dependence of child care givers to grandparents,” Lyonpo Karma Dorji said. “ This has led to double jeopardy that married couples are less interested in having kids, and our population is declining.”

This is an important policy decision, looking at all these aspects and many others, that we couldn’t even think of at the present moment, Lyonpo Karma Dorji added.

Although the government has approved bringing in FCC, the pilot project, labour department conducted for a period of six months on benefit and feasibility of FCC reflects various challenges including sourcing and recruiting FCCs, least interested foreign workers to be employed in Bhutan as FCC with better opportunities in other Indian states, and growing economy and new education policies across the border. 

Pilot project

The ministry met with the National Resilience Fund Task Force in June, 2022 to discuss bringing foreign workers for childcare, disability, and elderly care, of which only feasibility pilot study of foreign workers as child caregivers was allowed.

The ministry started a pilot project on October 20, last year,  targeting 100 households in Thimphu (85) and Phuntsholing (15).

There were 163 applicants but they faced difficulty in sourcing and recruiting FCC and the entire duration of the pilot project was used in sourcing and recruiting FCC, the pilot project report stated. The ministry had to intervene to locate and source FCCs.

Those FCC who worked earlier in Bhutan as domestic workers were migrating to other Indian states where they were given between Rs 25,000 and Rs 30,000 with free accommodation and they were least interested to come with incentives our people were willing to pay, the report added. According to DoL guidelines on FCC, Bhutanese should pay a minimum Nu 4,500 with free accommodation and food to FCCs.

The report also stated the Assamese government in particular was pushing a new goal of education and many villagers were encouraged to send children to school. 

By the end of April 30, only 11 households in Phuntsholing and 19 in Thimphu could find FCCs but after the vetting process, only 10 households in Phuntsholing and 13 in Thimphu could bring in FCCs.  

Sixteen out of the 23 FCCs wanted to remain in the country with the same employer and six wanted to remain in the country, but with different employer if incentives were better after the end of pilot period and only one wanted to go home to marry.

Only one family expressed the desire to have more children although the policy intervention is aimed at increasing fertility.

The long term goal of FCC is to increase the fertility rate from 1.7 to 2.1 but looking at the present situation, the households were reluctant to have more children although their household improved and made parenting easier with FCC. With time and benefit families may consider having more children, the pilot project report stated.

Employers said that the main reason to recruit FCC was due to unavailability of local help and strong need for domestic help for household chores including child care duties which helped increase their work productivity. The pilot project also found out that FCCs were more involved in-house chores than child care.