Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing 

To expedite work progress, the government has prioritised the import of labour for Punatsangchu Hydropower Project-II (PHPA-II).

A quarantine facility to accommodate 70 foreign workers has been prepared at the PHP-II site.

On March 17, 58 foreign workers were directly lifted from Phuentsholing to its premises in Wangdue as per the Covid-19 protocols.  The foreign workers underwent antigen and antibody Covid-19 tests before moving to Wangdue.

These foreign workers will get quarantined under standard and secure quarantine facilities at PHP-II premises.  Health ministry officials and other relevant officials had inspected the site and trained people on quarantine prior to starting the facility.

Workers were moved following strict protocols

A health official in Thimphu confirmed that the quarantine facility would be the same as in the existing facilities in hotels. 

“The national Covid-19 taskforce approved this,” he said.

The government, meanwhile, had been working on this for about two months considering the project’s need for skilled expatriate workers.

Tengye Lyonpo (economic affairs minister) Loknath Sharma said the project requires 1,500 foreign workers by June this year to expedite the work and complete it within the deadline.

“Although the government’s plan was to cater quarantine facilities for about 200 to 300 workers at the project site, facility for only 70 workers was approved after much observation and inspection,” he said. 

“The quarantine facility had to be very sophisticated.”

Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said the project has about 600 expatriate workers today.  Although Bhutanese made up the total workforce, it was still not enough and skilled workers were needed.

Initially, the government proposed to the national Covid-19 taskforce to use hotels in Paro and Thimphu for quarantining workers of power projects but it was rejected due to the risks involved.

“Project sites are isolated. The quarantine facility at the premises was accepted after a thorough inspection for months,” Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said.

Now, with the hydropower project having its own quarantine facilities, the pressure on quarantine facilities in Phuentsholing will be reduced.  At present, hydropower projects and other constructions compete for space to quarantine their workers.

Similarly, the government is also considering possibilities to start quarantine facilities for foreign workers for the industries in Pasakha.  Few industries that are shut could be developed as quarantine centres.

However, similar priority will not be given to other constructions given the high cost.

Since the import of foreign workers was allowed in October last year, 5,181 foreign workers have been approved to enter via Phuentsholing.  However, only 3,041 have entered Phuentsholing until March 17.

Starting from yesterday, entry of foreign workers has been deferred until March 20 because of the non-availability of quarantine facilities, sources confirmed.

People, who are constructing, are still facing the brunt of labour shortage in Phuentsholing and other dzongkhags.

A woman, Pema Choki, who is constructing her private building, said it took more than a month to bring in four foreign workers.

“I still need four more. I’ve applied but haven’t got the approval yet,” she said.

Pema also said some private construction owners have waited for more than 50 days to get foreign workers.  Bhutanese workers are not consistent and don’t have the required skills, she added.