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The labour ministry’s plan to revise wages for employees of the Build Bhutan Project has been shelved.  It is being reviewed, but most likely will never happen.  It was, like some of the workers said, too good to be true.

The raise announced was from 25 percent to more than 100 percent depending on skills.  An unskilled worker was to get Nu 25,000, up from 12,200.  Workers couldn’t believe their ears.  There were no big surprises when, at the end of February, they didn’t get the revised wages.  The bigger surprise is for the few who planned, borrowed or made decisions banking on the promised revision.

Increasing wages alone was never going to solve the shortage of hands in the construction sector.  It may have attracted a few hundreds, especially those who lost jobs because of the pandemic, but it was never going to be sustainable.  What would happen after the government’s term end?  From experience, elected governments do away with decisions of the past governments to accommodate with their own.  It would have been a huge cost on the government coffer, as employers do not share the revised cost.  Who would?

Since the announcement of the revision, it has caused disruptions in the labour market.  Workers in industries, hydropower and even civil service wanted to quit and join the project.  Some will now have to look for jobs.  University graduates, who just started working, were comparing their salary with the BBP workers.

The issue is not about paying construction workers higher or lower than civil servants.  Besides the sustainability and the impact of the decision on the labour market, it is also about the mentality.  Skills should determine wages or salary and we know some skilled workers earn more than many civil servants.  We pay for the skill not the grade or the kind of trade they practice.

In the meantime, those building houses with enormous borrowings are becoming jittery.  There are no hands to complete the work.  Their experience with local workers, skilled or unskilled, is not encouraging.  Without completion, they cannot repay loans.  It will have a ripple effect on the economy.  The longer it takes, the heavier the burden of loan becomes.

Let’s be honest, we can never replace the entire expatriate workforce in the country.  What we could still focus on is skilling people through training.  An expatriate mason or a carpenter today earns the same or more than a director, for instance.  And there is more of a demand for masons and carpenters than directors.

However, we had been talking about skilling programmes for the last many years, even decades.  The output is lacking.  The technical and vocational education training (TVET) programme, taken over by the national TVET Council briefly, is back with the ministry.  The question on every mind is what is being done, besides passing the ownership of the programme to different agencies, to improve workmanship, create jobs and reduce the dependence on foreign workers.

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