The citrus mandarin (orange) export business which demands intensive labour to grade and pack has been hampered while the business is already reeling under the lockdown restrictions.
Exporters in Gelephu are struggling to clear the stocks in depots and unload oranges coming from the orchards with an acute shortage of workers. .
Exporters claim vehicles have to wait for days to unload. An exporter from Paro, Tsenda Dorji, said there are 45 Bhutanese workers in his depot involved in grading, packing, loading and unloading. “The work output was not as expected.”
He said the local workers lack experience and not so effective. “We usually deploy 30 Indian workers and they could pack two truckloads daily but this time the workers could hardly ready one truckload.”
He also said when there is delay in grading, packaging and loading as more oranges are brought from the orchard, oranges gets damaged. “In the beginning, there was less supply of oranges and workers complained of not having any work. Now they prefer to leave as the workload increased.”
More than 20 workers deployed with the help of the regional labour office left the work because of wage rate and long working hours, according to exporters and workers.
Most of the workers are paid based on the number of boxes they pack, grade, and load. More than 300 youth and women were employed for the export.
A worker, Karma Yangzom, from Sarpang said the work was heavy, as they have to work for 24 hours sometimes. “We don’t get to wash our face. The labour office told us we would be working for nine hours but it’s different here. The wage rate is not fixed yet. It’s verbally said that we would be given Nu 15 per box for packing.”
She said the labour office told them they would also be paid Nu 5,000 but they did not receive it yet.
Another worker, Rinchen Zangmo, said the owners were supportive and coordinated the work well. “We work individually and it’s often competitive. Those who left were not physically fit. Some were underage,” she said.
Exporter said many workers left after officials from RENEW informed them that underage children were not allowed to work. Most of them were employed through a labour office in Gelephu to meet the labour shortage.
Exporter Sangay from Paro said there was an agreement signed to ensure they work till the export is over. “But, we couldn’t stop, as they couldn’t work.”
Regional Secretary with Bhutan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), Kelzang, said there would be more supply from farmers this month. “We have informed exporters to bring in experienced workers to meet the shortage.”
Officials say about 200,000 farmers, who depend on oranges, would be affected if the export doesn’t happen as planned.
Kelzang said the supplies would be diverted to other depots in Phuentsholing where there is no labour shortage to ensure farmers’ products are not damaged.
He also said exit time for vehicles from border gate was also extended from 6pm to 9pm to help the export. “Taskforce rendered all required support.”