The tragic death of a Bhutanese in Japan has yet again brought the controversial earn and learn programme back to the fore.

It is not that the programme was not without issues. It just did not get enough attention from the authorities to address the teething problems it was grappling with. Given the pressure to address unemployment, if not through jobs at home than through jobs abroad, we have opened a business opportunity that tolerates exploitation and economic abuse.

From what has been reported on the programme, a student is already admitted at the hospital after she contracted tuberculosis. The programme is under ACC radar for sometime now and reports on the plight of Bhutanese in Japan have started floating on social media. Now, we have a Bhutanese who went to Japan to make a living allegedly taking his own life.

Despite noble intent to equip Bhutanese youth with skills to make them employable, the earn and learn programme is proving to be disastrous by the day. The programme is one of the several that was initiated to address the growing problem of unemployment. Weak implementation and poor monitoring of these programmes have left our youth exploited and vulnerable. From the Middle East to Malaysia to Japan and India, Bhutanese youth sent to work abroad through overseas agents have been subject to socioeconomic abuse.

As complaints flow in, a team gets fielded, an investigation ensues and often, the agent’s licence is suspended or cancelled. Yet the exploitation continues just the programme. There are today about 700 Bhutanese in Japan of which more than 30 have returned home. A majority of those availed loans to go overseas but almost 80 youth have already defaulted repayment. A handful of them, about nine, claimed to have paid off their loans. Including the labour ministry’s direct collaboration with an institute in Japan, two agents are involved in sending youth there through the earn and learn programme.

The state of most Bhutanese in Japan, who are not earning and learning enough to make a decent living calls for urgent attention from the government. Questions are now raised on whether they are even students and that the student status may be made just to enter Japan.  It is time to review the overseas programmes and we call on the government to ensure the safety of our youth, both at home and abroad.

With more Bhutanese leaving home to work abroad, there is a need to have comprehensive measures in place to ensure the wellbeing of all Bhutanese on foreign soil. We cannot ignore their plight anymore, irrespective of whichever government initiates and implements the programme.

Except for the earn and learn programme, cooperation between Bhutan and Japan has been one of the most successful to date. As Bhutan celebrates this friendship with Japan weeks, she mourns the death of a young Bhutanese in Japan.