The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, October 1, 2010

Border businesses get breathing space

Ministry of labour eases pressure regarding workers from outside

EASED: The labour ministry has relaxed the rules a bit (File photo)
Foreign Nationals 1 October, 2010 - Hotelier Pema had been looking for prospective Bhutanese employees ever since the labour ministry’s notification in August restricting the number of non-Bhutanese workers businesses in the border towns can employ.

The notification comes into effect today and Pema is still looking. “Some called to ask how much they’d be paid and most didn’t have experience,” he said, adding that he had received several calls after he advertised last month.

For the likes of Pema, the ministry has relaxed the rules a bit. As per the notification, all foreign workers, apart from a restricted number, had to be replaced by Bhutanese workers from today. But this will not be the case, said labour officials.

The labour ministry has increased the number of foreign workers that restaurants can employ from three to five, while work permits will be issued for hotel employees as per the classifications done by tourism council board, said labour officials.

“We looked at the actual requirements and whether or not Bhutanese were willing to take up the jobs,” said the regional secretary of BCCI, Kesang Wangdi. “We had also asked the ministry to look into the scale of business and allow foreign workers for the specified two years,” he said.

Regional labour officials said no inspection would be carried out immediately, as many were still in the process of getting work permits.

Yesterday rumours were rife that all non-Bhutanese, irrespective of what they were doing, would have to leave Phuentsholing today.

A regional labour official said, “People must remember that the rule isn’t against free movement of people. Employment was never free and everyone had to avail work permits as per rules and regulations.”

Some Phuentsholing resident said the authorities tried the same thing before. “Few years back, there was a similar speculation, but nothing happened,” said one. “Even to implement an old rule, the concerned authorities should do a proper ground work. Do they even have the exact number of day workers from across the border?”

Regional immigration officials said that no work permits, as per the notification, were issued until now, as they were yet to get directives from the labour ministry.

There were about 5,000 non-Bhutanese working in various sectors, including the industrial estate in Phuentsholing, according to records maintained by immigration.

A hotelier, whose hotel is located in the heart of the town, said that she was informed yesterday that four work permits were approved of the ten she applied for through a foreign worker recruitment agency.

She paid Nu 1,300 a head, which includes various procedure fees and a security deposit of Nu 500.

Director general of the labour department, Pema Wangda, said that approval of work permits started from yesterday. “The enforcement will be carried out later as right now the rule is still in process,” he said.

Almost 80 percent of the workers in Phuentsholing town’s 943 shops and hotels, registered with the trade department, are day workers from across the border. The workers from across border earn on an average Nu 2,000 a month, with some of them even willing to work for Nu 500 to Nu 1,000 a month.

In August, the ministry listed nine enterprises - hotel, restaurant, electronic repair shop, tailoring shop, hair cutting saloon, bakery, smithery, shoe repair shop and pharmacy – where they may employ foreign workers, only if no Bhutanese are available.

It also restricted the number of foreign workers to three an establishment, at the most, who must be replaced by Bhutanese workers within the next two years.

Many businessmen said that, in case they are not able to replace foreign workers within the time frame or need more workers, the labour and employment department should create a mechanism through which employers will be able to find Bhutanese workers.

By Kinga Dema

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