Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

 A 17-year-old girl succumbed to injuries after she was hit by falling metal rods at the Mega Dry Port (MDP) construction site in Pasakha yesterday.

The class nine student of Chapcha MSS had just started to work at the RCC wall construction of the port about a week ago.

The incident occurred at around 9:30am yesterday. Ten workers, including the deceased teenager, were working on concreting the wall.

The bamboo scaffoldings that held the raised rods collapsed and the rods fell on the workers, trapping them. While two suffered fractures, seven were in stable condition. The girl was declared dead when she reached the hospital.

Eyewitnesses said it took more than an hour to remove the trapped workers from underneath the rod nets.

The girl’s father also worked at the same construction site but he was with a different group yesterday. He said his daughter was seated underneath the rod nets when the incident happened.

“The rods hit her on the back. It broke her back,” he said. “She was already cold and her lips had turned blue while she was still trapped.”

Eyewitnesses said those around were helpless as hundreds of rods had fallen. The equipment to cut through the rods was brought in from the Pasakha industry.

Child labour 

Although it was an accident, the incident has highlighted the child labour issue. Few more workers involved in the accident were also minors.

These workers were physically small and they were put underneath the metal rods to work as adults didn’t fit in.

However, it is not the first case where a construction company has employed minors. In many parts of the country, construction firms allow children below 18 to work at construction sites.

The construction firm Hi-Tech’s proprietor Tshewang Norbu said the disaster had occurred because the earthquake tremors on the night of February 10 had compromised the bamboo supports.

“I am sure the earthquakes caused the problem,” he said. “Because these supports were placed about 15 days ago and there were no problems.”

Hi-Tech officials also said that a similar job was done on a different area of the construction site and there were no problems.  

On the employment of minor workers, he said that the company management had no idea about the workers’ age and other details. As these workers were recruited through labour contractors, the management didn’t have clear and specific details.

“I had even asked the labour contractors to submit the details. The process of filtering the workers after getting the workers’ details and streamlining the workforce was under process,” he said, adding the management wanted to appoint the workers legally.

“Otherwise, we didn’t know who was working—and whether they were underage or not. Unfortunately, this happened.”

Tshewang Norbu also said that it was the company’s intent to engage more Bhutanese workers in the construction during the pandemic.

The proprietor said that all the necessary compensation and related expenses for the deceased girl’s family will be looked after by his firm. He also helped with transport for the families yesterday.

“All other injured workers will also be looked after by the company as per the law,” he said.

Labour shortage

It has been some time now that construction firms in Phuentsholing have been employing Bhutanese workers, including youth in construction. Hi-Tech also employed about more than 130 Bhutanese workers at the Pasakha MDP site.

Due to the pandemic, there is a shortage of skilled construction workers as the border remains closed and contractors cannot employ those from across the border. Many students work at the construction sites to earn pocket money before returning to school.

As per the current rules, Hi-Tech is allowed to recruit only 13 foreign workers. The construction firm had applied for these foreign workers but they have not arrived.

“We have written about this even to the labour ministry,” he said. “But we were told the gap was kept so that more Bhutanese could be engaged.”

Phuentsholing labour officials, meanwhile, said there are procedures and only the ministry can approve foreign workers after verification. Construction firms also import using labour agents.

The rules say

As per the “Prohibited forms of child labour” under the Regulations on Working Conditions, 2012, “The employment of children in occupations and jobs that are covered by Section 9 of the Labour and Employment Act, 2007 is prohibited.”

In addition to the work activities identified in Section 9 of the Act, there are many jobs children between the ages of 13 and 17 cannot do.

Children in this age bracket are prohibited to work in construction, except minor and light construction works at non-risky and non-dangerous construction sites.

Mining or quarrying, confined spaces, and heavy labouring and lifting works are among many works not allowed for children in this age group.

The Regulations on Working Conditions, 2012, states: “A person who employs children in any occupation or job indicated in Sections 8 and 9 of this Regulation is liable for the same penalty as for the contravention of Section 9 of the Act.”

The Labour Act states: “A person who contravenes section 9 shall be guilty of an offence which shall be a felony of the third degree.” A third-degree felony gets a prison term of five to nine years.

Labour officials said they will prepare a report and submit to the ministry for further directives.