One of Bhutan’s spectacular attempts to popularise an alternative development paradigm that puts happiness at the centre of our development philosophy and our unprecedented efforts to conserve our pristine natural environment has drawn numerous accolades in the international arena.

We are today recognised as a global leader in environmental protection. We are experiencing economic growth and expansion like never before. It should be noted, however, that this socio economic development would not have materialised without the large segment of Indian workforce in the country.

We are predominantly a migrant-receiving country. Our dependence on foreign workers, for both skilled and unskilled jobs, continues. It will continue far into the future. The boom in the hydropower development and private constructions has heavily forced us to depend on foreign workers. The construction industry in Bhutan continues to be the fastest-growing and biggest-employing industry in the country.

We have to depend on foreign workers, especially because our people are unwilling to do low-paying jobs. This has given rise to a paradoxical development in the country today. While our young people become increasingly jobless, we continue to bring in foreign workers to help us build our homes and roads.

Construction workers from Assam and West Bengal in India are ubiquitous in almost all the construction sites in the country. They can be seen as far east as in the remotest villages of Trashiyangtse and far up north in the forests of Laya. The unfamiliar climatic conditions in the west and north, difficult and mountainous terrain in the east have not deterred the migrant workers from India. They have almost become an integral element of Bhutanese life and economy.

Bhutan and India share a unique bond of friendship. In order to delve and re-discover what it empirically denotes, it may appear worthwhile to look at it from a renewed frame of mind: reality vs. abstraction. What we call forest for example, in reality is a single tree that makes the forest. In the same vein, these construction workers in reality are the people that make Indians. Construction workers in Bhutan, therefore, are as Indian as any other expatriates working in Bhutan and elsewhere around the globe. The depth of our relationship with these groups of workers as employer and host perhaps need rethinking and must rise higher above the normal employer-worker relationship.

They are Indian first and workers second. Therefore, the bond of existing friendship our two countries enjoy must regard and consider our Indian construction brothers on equal footing. Anything less than that will be incorrect and disregardful. In other words, they deserve our respect as any other friends ought to be respected regardless of their class and profession.

The construction is one of the most hazardous sectors where workers are prone to accidents. Records shows that some of the construction workers in Bhutan get injured, fall ill or die as a result of workplace hazards. Incidents have occurred in the recent times. Whilst occupational health and safety regulations are put in place and inspections intensified from time to time, health and safety issues in the construction sector still remains a challenge, posing threat to the health and safety of the workers. Occupational health and safety of our construction workers must be, therefore, respected and accorded top priority by Bhutanese employers. The government must strictly regulate this. We need to invariably relook at their health and safety issue from a fresh frame of mind with an overwhelming sense of urgency.

We have heard stories of construction workers having to undergo great ordeals on matters surrounding delay and non-payment of wages on time. We know that these workers have immigrated to work elsewhere leaving behind their children, wives and family members who depend exclusively on them for their daily livelihood. Delay in their payment means uncertainties of the very survival of their dependents back home.

It may not be incorrect to assume that ‘happiness’ which we profess to the outside world, to these group of workers would not mean anything above and beyond receiving their hard-earned payment on time. And they have all the right to be happy for having fulfilled the conditions to be happy in the land of the happiness.

We need them and without them our economic development will surely struggle. These construction workers are still the crucial work force responsible for our nation building. As a benevolent host to these workers, we ought to respect them in ways that they truly deserve as a citizen of a country of which we regard as our greatest ally.

Contributed by

Kezang Namgyel

Bhutan Hydropower Service Limited

Jigmiling, Gelephu