Thousands of Bhutanese have returned home, many want to stay back and look for jobs

Yeshey Lhadon  | Hotel Silver pine (quarantine facility), Thimphu

Not able to find jobs in the country, thousands of Bhutanese applied for the labour ministry’s overseas employment programme. Going by the numbers, the programme, even if temporary, was successful.

About 6,935 Bhutanese, mostly youth, found jobs in the oil-rich Gulf countries since the programme started in 2013. However, with the Covid-19 pandemic hitting the Gulf States, 1,566 Bhutanese have returned home, mostly from Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. According to the returnees, more are on the way or waiting to come home. 140 will return today.

Many were compulsorily retired while some took unpaid leave, resigned voluntarily and some completed their contract term. As of today, the returnees are confused about future prospects. While some want to return, many said they have not decided with the best bet staying back and looking for jobs or starting a business.

The pressure is felt strongly by those who have recently found a job in the Middle East. Sonam Tobgay, 21, came home on May 9. He is among the 3,000 Bhutanese working in Kuwait. He barely worked for two months as a Doughnut operator with a monthly salary of 120 Kuwaiti Dinar (KD) or about Nu 29,400. One KD is about Nu 245. When Kuwait was hit by the pandemic, he was still on his probation period.

“I’m broke. I spent all my savings to buy a flight ticket,” he said recently. He left for Kuwait to support his family in Bhutan. 

“I am willing to do any sort of manual jobs in the construction sites for my family’s livelihood.” He is on unpaid leave for two months. His company might hire him if the situation improves, but he is worried about the return journey. “I cannot afford the flight ticket to go back. I have to find a job in Bhutan as soon as possible.”

In the UAE, M.H Al-Shaya, a global branding retail company absorbed the largest group of Bhutanese youth. Bhutanese graduates were not only paid handsomely but also found an opportunity to build a career overseas. Tandin Pem, Sherubtse College graduate returned from UAE after almost four years. Her professional ethic as a sales associate earned her promotion and a salary raise from 3,500 AED to 4,500 AED (about Nu 90,000). One AED is about Nu 20. The graduate, while in the UAE, financed her siblings’ education and even renovated her parent’s house. She retired to come home and is helping her mother until she’s clear about her next move.

Where are the jobs?

The demand for cheap workers in the Middle East provided the solution to growing unemployment pains in South Asia including Bhutan. Coming home and with the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, they are worried.

Finding a job in Bhutan is of primary concern for most of the returnees. “I think getting a job in Bhutan would be more competitive as many capable youths from abroad have returned,” said Tandin Pem.

Majority of the youth working in the Middle East have secondary and tertiary education. Bhutanese youth on the other hand are looking for a secure job. Kinley Dema, a class 12 graduate was terminated without any notice or benefits while she was home for a vacation. She worked for Nijoud Restaurant in Kuwait for two years. She said, “My job in Kuwait is not secure. We are sacked when the business is not good.”

Others took up low-skilled jobs such as waiter or waitress and sales person in the Gulf States on a two-year contract. However, the same job in the country is taken up reluctantly because of poor wages.

Kinley Dema said, “I want to find a secure job in Bhutan but I am worried if I can make my ends meet. The salary paid in Bhutan would leave me hand to mouth at the best.” She used to earn 145 KD and send nu 20,000 every month to her mother.

She said, “My plan was to work in Kuwait until I save enough money to start a small business at home but the pandemic ruined everything.” She has been desperately looking for a job for the last three months. “It’s hard to get a job in Bhutan with my skills and experience related to hotels and restaurants in today’s situation,” she said. “I can’t wait for the pandemic to get over. I want to look for a job in Qatar or Dubai.”


Self-employment an option

Many returnees see self-employment as the key for survival and even income generation if they stay back. However, many returnees could not earn enough to start a small business. Dorji Wangchuk returned from Kuwait after working there for 16 months. He has no savings as he used to send money home. He said, “I want to stay back, open a grocery store. It would be possible if the government supports with loan”

Tashi Namdrel returned home empty handed after working in Kuwait for seven months.  He went back to his village in Samdrupjongkhar.  “I will start selling vegetables,” he said.  His income while in Kuwait was the only source of cash for the family.

Some of the returnees have not only gained skills and exposure working there, but also gained some business ideas to startup their own business. “It’s time to think out of box and do something for ourselves and others rather than grieving over losing jobs and expecting more support from the government,” said Tandin Pem.

Meanwhile, some returnees are recipients of the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu while some are waiting for the government to create job opportunities.  However, with a huge number in the working age group remaining unemployed in the country, the opportunities are limited.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, in an earlier interview, said that His Majesty The King has commanded the government to tap the potential of these returnees equipped with experience and skills of working aboard. The government, he said, is working along this line and as far as possible to create enough opportunities for them to stay back.