Indian Labor in Bhutan
Since the day I arrived to Bhutan in January of 2016, I have been captivated by the circumstances of Indian laborers. At first I saw them roadside in pitched tents made from bamboo poles and (barely) waterproof tarps. Sometimes such facilities were fashioned with chicken wire at one end, packed with dried leaves to make an insulation from the winter winds and weather. I would watch them as they manually hammered rocks by hand from boulder size down to gravel sized pebbles. I would marvel at their ingenuity to make-shift devices to help them move large objects in tandem pairs. But I am left to wonder what their impact on society is. Why are there so many of them here and how their facilities are permitted to be quite so tragic? This paper is an incomplete exploration of such questions and has turned from a roadside curiosity to a wide rabbit hole of geopolitical, economic and social questions, only a fraction of which are addressed within.
According to the government’s Handbook on Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Workers there are nearly 45,000 legal Indian laborers spread across the nation (2009, p.2). That number accounts for nearly 6% of the overall population of Bhutan’s 770,000 (TradingEconomics.com, 2016) and 18% of the working population. In September of 2015, there was an adjustment to the out dated national wage rates. Wages for unskilled laborers increased from 165NU/day to 215NU/day, roughly $3.25/day; providing, even the most low-wage earners, with a salary 70% above the United Nations’ development poverty line of $1.90/day. Workers at sites above 8,000 feet are issued additional compensation of 600NU. Wage updates were prompted due to problems of the Ministry of Roads (MoR) who were loosing able-bodied workers to the hydropower projects, who paid better salaries. This left the Ministry of Roads with mostly physically impaired and elderly personnel to build and maintain roads. Wage changes are mandated by the RGoB but are only applicable only to Bhutanese laborers. Indian laborers’ rates are negotiated separately on a contract-by-contract basis without the protection of the RGoB’s policies. With the increase wage adjustment came a new problem; the hydropower projects stopped hiring Bhutanese people for the jobs, on account that rates for Indian workers were more affordable; directly contributing to the unemployment of Bhutanese. Current contracts and wage rates for Indian laborer could not be found. A report from a Bhutanese ex-road worker states that rages were comparable among the two work groups, but exact numbers were not accessible for comparison.
According to the Ministry of Roads, laborers are expected to work 48 hour work weeks with no more than 4 hours of overtime in any one 24 hours period. They will receive 8 paid public holidays and at least one 24 hour rest period per week. Qualifications for the job (in addition to skill set needed for services) require that the applicant must be between the ages of 20-50 years old, be free of a criminal record, and be free from communicable diseases.
According to the Health and Services Center in Thimphu, the first ever case of AIDS was reported in Bhutan in 1993. Many Bhutanese believe that the spread of HIV came to Bhutan by the Indian laborers. However, the RGoB requires all foreign laborers be tested for non-communicable diseases prior to employment, including, but not limited to HIV/AIDS. Although this type of testing is not required by the International Laborers Organization (ILO), Bhutan is legally permitted to make such requirements within their own jurisdiction (ILO, 2009. p.11) . Complications come from the ethical conduct of such testing procedures. After a laborer qualifies for a job based on skill and merit, they are required to be tested. If a test comes back positive, that person may be fired and immediately deported. Sometimes they are notified of the reason for being fired, sometimes they are not. The situations under which workers are notified of their results can take place in non-private settings under which no emotional or medical counseling is provided. ILO reports that in many of these cases, the fired person frequently “disappear” and is never seen again (p. 12). In other circumstances, an employer might require “optional” testing prior to applying for the job. Since job placements are so coveted it is not uncommon for applicants to give “consent” just for the mere opportunity to compete for the job. However, this kind of consent is not considered “full” by the standards of the ILO as it is a direct violation of Human Rights laws of Body Integrity & Dignity. In a third scenario, employers may draw blood for other kinds of testing and then secretly test for HIV without notifying the applicant. Those who test positive for HIV are in turn denied the position and may or may not be notified at all of their health status. In the event that they are not notified that they have contracted HIV, such individuals could be unknowingly spreading the disease. In a 2009 report by the ILO regarding the ethics of such practices, the ILO outwardly discouraged such testing on the grounds that it “represents a serious human rights violation (p. 11).” and is not an “effective public health response (p. 11),” in that data does not support that it is an effective means in preventing the spreading of such diseases.
As time went by, it seemed that I was the only one with the curiosity of how the Indians were treated and their well-being. I sought out opportunities for conversation and began to make observations in my daily interactions. Here is what I discovered.
Consistently, when it is “rush hour” between the morning classes and the afternoon classes on campus, there are students everywhere going up and down the hill to the hostels and from the academic block. Walking during this time can take nearly twice as long because the Bhutanese stop to great each other every 5 meters. They shake and hold hands, ask each other where they are going and then return to their leisurely stroll. At no point in time, when an Indian worker is passing by do the Bhutanese acknowledge the presence of the Indian. There is, what appears to be, a deliberate avoidance of engaging at all. When asked about this, there is always a bit of a hush tone to the quality of the response. A simple head gesture seems to echo the words of a local politician: “We have a saying here in Bhutan: ‘We like the Chinese, but we do not like China. And we like India, but we do not like the Indians.” Although workers may not arrive with such diseases as HIV, societal isolation, as described above, in conjunction with absence from family, renders many foreign laborers lonely. Thus resulting in the higher probability of the use of sexual facilities, like dryangs, and increasing the likelihood that they do contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted disease and perpetuate the social stigma which renders them isolated in the first place.
I had the opportunity to sit with two of the gentleman from the ILCS hostel construction team. One of them, “Uncle LD,” is from southern Bhutan and the overseer of the project. He has tanned skin, looking quite Indian, and a somewhat stylish hair-style which grows away from his forehead and flops at the center line to the left and right equally. He sits with his chin slightly upward; casting his gaze down the bridge of his nose, squinting. His two front teeth are white as can be and face, at an acute angle, toward each other. He and I spoke in english and I learned that he recently became a widower. His two sons are trying to arrange a second marriage for him, but he seems hesitant. He shows me a photograph of his wife from his wallet. He speaks to me a little about the timeline of the construction project and what his role is there. It seems to me that he enjoys being “the boss” and he doesn’t have a great deal of confidence in the Indians to conduct this project without his expertise.
Shamul, is from Deli. He has a wife and two sons back home. He wasn’t able to communicate with me directly, but when asked how if he liked being in Bhutan he said “Lucky Madam” without any reservation. Uncle LD spoke a little for him, translating the number of Nultrum that he uses on a daily basis to be in contact with his wife, which exceeds 500Nu per day. Shamul also shows me a photo. It is of him and his wife, by arranged marriage. She is adorned in a sari and he is laying with his head in her lap. She looks at the camera, and so does he. It is a uniquely intimate posture, but it feels posed. There is a maternal quality to his wife; something about the way her hands are pressed to his brow — there is attunement.
At the opportunity of Holi, I was able to see the internal arrangements of the campus side housing of the construction workers. Starkly simple on the outside, with no windows whatsoever. The walls are uninsulated and made of simple plywood. Just a small box of a space within, but the organization and cleanliness is quite impressive. There are two wooden platforms which are made into beds, and one long bench fashioned from leftover building material. All of the tools in the make-shift kitchen are daintily hung along the wall. There is a beautiful 1990’s style sound system, with a subwoofer and two large side speakers, presumably for surround sound, although they are clumped all together on one table. It’s a flashy red plastic with blue lighting on the display screen. It has a CD player and it is playing beautiful bollywood style tunes. Together, we dance, celebrating with orange blossom scented chalk like paint on our skin and streetwear; the application of which was warm and gentle. I am welcomed one step further by a cup of whiskey. The chalice is fashioned from a recycled coke bottle, cut off at the lowest third. The lip has a perfect flare and the liquid is poured to the brim. I take a sip and then leave the cup atop the bench next to some others. The dancing is a lively frenzy. The mood is jolly. There is zero pretense and a thousand pounds of bliss. I experience my own joy seeing how able they are to be free and happy in this celebration.
Just as the Indian housing was organized at ILCS, the composition and pristine arrangements at Jaypee hydropower camp were no different. In fact, the facilities there were even more impeccable. When I flung open the door of my taxi, my mental jaw dropped. The place was immaculate. It felt like a lego made, NASA-esque facility which is sterile enough to eat off the ground. I take in a full 360º. There is an enormous and pristine looking medical facility. On the side of another building there is a crisply designed logo that feels a little like Disney. The lines are sleek, there is a featured shooting star, and the slogan below, inspirationally, reading “no dream too big.” Inside a vast vault like hanger, I shuffle past two desks that look like air traffic control — equipped with new and highly functional computer displays. All persons behind the desk are Indian and male except for one Bhutanese girl who appears to be very formally dressed — very beautifully made up, hair and make-up more elaborate than at the clubs in Thimphu.
Like me, their jaws are a bit dropped too. I get the feeling that they think I am there for an unannounced inspection or interrogation. Although they don’t show fear, there is a quirky sense of curiosity and surprise. I go into the office of, one, S.K. Sharma. He is wearing a round, almost pillbox like hat that is colorfully stitched with elaborate flowers. He offers a seat and begins to tell me about the process by which Jaypee was awarded the contract for the hydropower job. He has been here since 2013, the camp since 2012. He spent 30 years in the Indian army. He notes that this is longer than I have probably been alive - and I chuckle wishing it was true. He is very attune and willing to change conversational direction with me when I pose a new question or ask for clarification. I inquire about his isolation at the camp site and if he ever feels bored. He expresses that he has no time to be bored because he is working 12 hours days. But when he does have downtime, he takes great pleasure in reading. He makes a connection to a moment when he tried to come to the ILCS library to look for books, but no one was there and the library was locked.
After the interview and a quick tour of the parts shop, I am standing again in the center of the Jaypee campus. To my left, there is a patch of tightly manicured grass and its circumference is three rows of roses, kalalilies, and gerbera daisies. The flowers are so picture perfect that I had written them off as plastic upon arrival.
A woman appears and continues the tour, up over a fleet of steps, around a barren corner turning into a vast scape of golfing greens like grass. There are three men working here at the far corner of the yard, which abuts the cliff side. Just above the retaining wall in the road we came down to enter the camp. Past the first hairpin turn you can see the words AUTO WORKSHOP written in blue on a white building. It’s large enough to house 6-7 service bays for multi axel vehicles. Here in the shadow of the hill side, there is a man atop the retaining wall mixing cement. He uses a plate like shovel to churn the mix. Below the wall is another man pouring the cement into flower pots. He measures just enough and then places a weighted mould within. Turned over on the lawn before him there are seven or eight over turned pots which have been removed from the mould and are being left out to dry and solidify.
As I mentally detail the scene, the third man walks towards me and offers a hello. He has a face from movies. There are purposeful lines and each thread of his beard seemed embroidered into place. His mustaches is like two mirroring tinsel silvery-white fiddlehead ferns peeling away from the centerline of his features. His voice is distinct, his diction elicit. Under his chin is a dauntingly tight strap. As he speaks, it seems to be contributing to the qualities of his speech. He asks me where I am from, and I say Colorado. He points to the breast pocket of his jacket which says “National Geographic: Grand Canyon.” He was just there in 2013 with his daughter who lives in Boston and works for a company that is in the process of merging with IBM (which is based in Boulder). He is sophisticated and polite. He is bright in mind and deliberate in his motions and word choice. He was lovely.
At the geo-political level, the Government of India (GoI) is a huge supporter of Bhutan. The Counsel on Foreign Relations reports that India’s aid budget in 2016 will contribute more than one billion dollars to Bhutan. This amount accounts for 62% of India’s total global aid budget (2015). There is no doubt that, without India’s help financially, Bhutan would be a sitting duck for development. There is also no doubt that this money is well spent for India, as Bhutan is a gentle neighbor and well sized buffer from China. It is in India’s interest to maintain a good standing relationship with Bhutan, rather than maintain a border directly with China, which would accrue a substantial military plan and budget.
In surplus of the aid, Bhutan’s hydropower funding is directly from the GoI (“Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Project.”, n.d.). GoI is footing the bill for several projects whose budgets exceed $550 billion USD each. Financing is divided 30%/70% grant and loan, respectively. In addition to the hydropower projects, GoI is also directly involved in the funding of the major East/West road project which is at the root of Bhutan’s 11th Five Year Plan (2013-2018) for sustainable development. This road is promised to secure the Bhutanese people with a paved path for commerce and other public goods and services.
These projects aren’t just funded by India, they are being manually produced by India’s work force as well. Indian companies, such as Jaypee, BHEL, T&D India and PES, compete in the bidding for such projects when presented by the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB). These contractors independently contract their laborers, most of whom are hired from India. Although section 23.R of the Handbook on Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Workers in Bhutan says that contractors must “[g]ive preference to Bhutanese who seek jobs in the employer’s organization (s. 23r),” there are few Bhutanese who apply and even fewer who are qualified for the positions.
Lack of Bhutanese applicants isn’s just a result of limited technical training in the nation and an unskilled applicant pool, this generation of Bhutanese college graduates are most focused on securing a “government job.” This fixated mindset of graduates is concerning since the number of graduates far out weight the 23 upcoming available positions in government employment. Students around campus who are aware of this ratio present with a kind of denial; blind to how this will impact them individually; resulting in lacking thoughtfulness of a “plan b.”
It is said that the national narrative of importance and value of a “government job” has roots in the voiced desires of the 4th King, who deeply wanted “peoples participation” to be the source of Bhutan’s decision making power and governance. During the time the constitution was being designed, the 4th king was working closely with international minds, India’s finest not withstanding. As a result, he made a concerted effort to ensure that the politically powerful position in parliament would be awarded only to the people of Bhutan, such that they were in control of their own destiny. A noble and rightful intention; but a result in an adoring generation pressuring their offspring to push almost exclusively that way forth in their careers. Even in schools, children are told “if you are good, you will get a government job.” Unfortunately this creates an undermining effect of the value of blue collar, infrastructure creating, jobs which the country desperately needs.
Economically, this business cycle with India needs to be closely examined. As India contributes aid and hydropower funding contributions, and Indian laborers are brought in to perform the labor tasks, a substantial portion of a workers salary are returning back into the economy from which it was gifted. That means, very little of the money that has been aided to Bhutan is actually remaining within the Bhutanese market. This decreases the opportunity to generate wealth, develop opportunity for local reinvestment or grow GDP and the result could be an un-payable debit and long term, if not permanent, co-dependency on India.
En tally, my encounters can be summarized as blithe. The Indian people seem stable and happy to be here in Bhutan. Intrinsically a snapshot comparison to my otherwise formal encounters with Bhutanese; with whom I mostly feel objectified and privilegedly awkward. I don’t mean to compare; that is far from fair or helpful. But as experiences go - they are are distinctly different, and opposite to what I hypothesized. Perhaps the Indians having lived through colonization has left a residual conditioning of a need to please and appease? Plus- how real of an exposure can I really be getting? Limited access aside, if there is so much organization, so much overseeing and regulation, is what I see real?
These social and economical issues of Indian laborers in Bhutan are present from the mundane to the political. Isolated for decades, Bhutan’s very existence became dependent on it’s strong and distinct culture. You can hardly fault them for staying strong in solidarity. But such pride does seem to give rise to a kind of prejudice that appears unmindful, in-compassionate and ungrateful; none of which feel terribly inclusive, GNH, Bhutanese or Buddhist. And although the living condition of roadside workers are most certainly not comfortable or even en par with non-poverty living standards, there is most likely equality in their pay and a genuine happiness to be working in Bhutan, seemingly despite the lack of respect and downsides of social stigma. This is all quite a paradox to me and I will be very interested to see how this invisible class of Indian workers who are, literally, moulding the very landscape of possibility for this country, comes to change over time.
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