The labour ministry will intervene and contact the company in Qatar

Employment: After completing class XII, Pema Wangchuk was unable to pursue his higher education because of his average marks. He struggled for many years looking for a job in the country.

Pema Wangchuk found a glimmer of hope when the labour ministry decided to send Bhutanese jobseekers to Qatar through the overseas employment programme.

The 24-year-old was selected for the programme under a private consultant, Global Recruitment Overseas Employment Agency.

Today, after almost two years in Qatar, Pema Wangchuk speaks of the ground realities and the condition of the Bhutanese workers in the Middle East.

Some 50 Bhutanese employees working as cashiers and sales associates for Quality Hyper Market in Qatar were not paid their salaries since March.

“The problem is not only with the delay in salary, but issues such as salary increments, personal medical expenses, accommodation and food are also not being looked into as promised before we came here,” said Pema Wangchuk.

The workers discussed with this newspaper the challenges they face.

Pema Wangchuk added that the company had also promised to increase their salary after completing a three-month probation period. “It has been 18 months now, still there is no increment for anyone of us,” he said. “They had also agreed to pay for the overtime we do at the work. Still nobody has received the overtime money for the extra work.”

Tshering Yuden, another worker said that the Bhutanese agent (Employ Bhutan Overseas) before sending them, had promised that the company in Qatar would look after all medical expenses in case any one of us fell sick.

“Most of the time we pay for our own health expenses because the amount the company gives us (30 Riyal) for medical is not enough for us to buy medicines,” said Tshering Yuden. “There is no support from the company. They deduct the extra amount from our salary. Such treatment makes the working environment very difficult.”

Meanwhile, the labour ministry has not received any complaints “formally or informally” on the issue. Officials from the ministry said that it is difficult for them to take any actions since they did not have a clear idea on the real problem.

However, the ministry has informed the agents to look into the issue. Officials also said that they will investigate the problem and write a letter to the company in Qatar and workers to get a clearer picture on the problem.

Global Recruitment Overseas Employment Agency, which was suspended earlier in February for sending five Bhutanese to work in Russia without the approval of the ministry, has sent 67 Bhutanese jobseekers (43 male and 24 female) to Qatar since July 2013 to March 2016.

The agency’s general manager, NB Gurung, said that the news on BBS came as a shock to them. “We didn’t receive complaints on such issues. If we knew about such problems we would have talked to the company and got a clearer picture on the issue,” he said.

NB Gurung said that on May 5 the agency sent an email to the company seeking a clearer picture on the issue. “Since we are under suspension for six months, it is difficult for us to contact the company in Qatar,” he said. “I tried calling them through the phone as well but there was no response from the company.”

He added that such complaints have been there from before but there was no serious problem once when the case was investigated. “These complaints should not be taken seriously,” said NB Gurung. “The increment and salary raise will depend on the performance of the individuals. There are a few who started as sales associates and now they are in the human resource department in the company.”

He added: “There are still opportunities for the Bhutanese if they work hard. Problems such as this happens now and then in big companies.”

Opposition Leader (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said that the labour ministry failed to put in place adequate safety measures for the Bhutanese jobseekers while sending them abroad to work.

“When people were desperate enough to complain through the national television, this is more than filing a written complaint,” said (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho. “This should have been taken seriously and it deserves the attention of the labour ministry.”

He said that the government had assured the opposition that all safety measures were taken into consideration while sending the youth abroad.

“The government said that they were dealing with agents who were properly monitored and regulated by the labour ministry,” he said. “However, it doesn’t seem to be the case. We have heard of the recent incident where a Bhutanese lost his life in the Middle East and of several others who were deported back.”

(Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said that the opposition had pointed out to the government that sending youth abroad especially to Middle East countries should be the last option for solving the unemployment scenario of the country.

“Based on experiences of countries like Nepal and Bangladesh where migrant workers were ill-treated, abused and even exploited, we feared that we were also heading for similar consequences,” he said. “The ministry has not been able to assure the safety of our youth although they have given us the assurance.”

He said that for a country with a population of 700,000 and a work force of around 200,000, the generation of enough quality employment within the country is not a difficult task.

“The ministry needs to be proactive and thoroughly investigate the case. If the situation is as bad as it was reported, the ministry will have to look at bringing back our youth,” he said.

“We have to be very selective in terms of selecting the countries to send our youth to. The nature of companies, sectors and professional areas need to be thoroughly studied before sending our workforce there.”

Bhutan Kuen-nyam Party president, Sonam Tobgay also shared concerns over the issue. “This raises questions on the level of legitimacy that protects Bhutanese youth working abroad ensuring their rights are recognised and upheld,” he said. “Considering the situation is grave and if our youth overseas cannot find redress mechanisms corresponding to untimely and exploitative payments, excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, then I assume the government has not done a thorough job in identifying adequate employment overseas.”

Sonam Tobgay added that if the reports are true, the government must be held accountable for their actions in putting the life of our youth at risk in a foreign land.

Meanwhile, the workers also shared concerns over the reaction from the company upon hearing the news in the Bhutanese media. Pema Wangchuk said that since their passports were with the company, the possibilities of threats from the company to suspend them or even terminate them could not be overlooked.

“We might also land up as our fellow Nepalese friends who are left without a job and they can’t even go back to their country because their passports are currently seized by the company.”

Younten Tshedup