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Bhutanese Youth Face Rising Unemployment as Migrant Workforce Grows

The tiny, isolated Himalayan nation of Bhutan is experiencing record economic growth. But some experts are concerned about rising rates of unemployment among the country's youth as a growing migrant workforce takes many of the new jobs. Raymond Thibodeaux reports for VOA from Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.

Anyone traveling the hundred miles of road leading from the southern Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing to the capital, Thimphu, can see the people who are building the infrastructure of this tiny Himalayan nation, almost from scratch.

For the most part, they are not Bhutanese. They are mainly young men and women from Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. And they have come to Bhutan for the jobs that the vast majority of Bhutanese laborers either cannot - or will not - do.

Safigul Islam, a 23-year-old from West Bengal, is one of them.

"He says he's not feeling quite good due to the job here," says a translator. "Money problems - that is why he comes here, far away from family. After six months, he will go back again with the payment and make all the family happy."

A semi-skilled construction worker, Safigul makes about 200 rupees a day, the equivalent of about five U.S. dollars. He is paid better than most of the estimated 50,000 migrant workers who, escaping poverty back home, snap up jobs in Bhutan's booming construction industry, building roads, hydropower plants, and tourist hotels.

For Bhutan, the rising number of migrant laborers has both positive and negative sides. The cheap labor is fueling Bhutan's rapid modernization. But the influx of foreign workers, mixed with rising unemployment among Bhutan's youth, is blamed for increasing petty crime and drug and alcohol abuse.

But some analysts say the migrant laborers are almost a necessity for Bhutan's growth.

Recent government statistics show that unemployment in Bhutan has tripled in the past three years, rising to nearly four percent, with unemployment rates much higher for ages 15 to 24.

Still, on average, the Bhutanese are better off than most in surrounding countries. Yearly per capita income in Bhutan is about $1,400 (US), roughly twice that of neighboring India.

"Because of education, I guess aspirations have changed," said Sonam Tshering, Bhutan's minister of economic affairs. "We do have an unemployment problem. We have a lot of educated youth coming out on the job market annually. Now they all have much higher expectation. They are no longer interested in blue-collar jobs. Everybody wants to have an office. They want to sit on a chair. They do not want to apply themselves physically. So, the problem that we are facing at the moment in Bhutan is the mismatch between supply and demand."

The demand in Bhutan's fastest-growing job market - construction - is for low- and semi-skilled laborers who can work long hours for low wages, and are willing to live in the hundreds of squalid laborer camps cropping up in urban areas. The camps are clusters of corrugated tin and tarpaulin lean-tos, few with access to running water.

Health experts in Bhutan say the large numbers of poor, foreign workers living in the crowded camps could pose an increased risk of spread of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, diseases more common in the countries that surround Bhutan.

Sonam Chuki, a political science lecturer at the Royal Institute of Management in Thimphu, says the government needs to address the problem of youth unemployment.

"If the government does not address it now, and it continues for years to come, then it will be a big concern. When youth are unemployed there is the problem of their getting into drugs, small thefts, burglaries, alcohol and also getting into street fights. The social ills are there," Chuki said. "We are also talking about the rise of street prostitutes. You see, it is a really sad thing for Bhutan."

Tshering says the government is setting up programs to teach young people in Bhutan skills such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical engineering - all of which are vital to the construction industry.

Fear of a large and growing force of foreign laborers is particularly acute in Bhutan, a tiny country of only about 630,000 people sandwiched between two giants, India and China.

This is not the first time that huge numbers of foreign laborers have raised concern in Bhutan. Bhutanese authorities cracked down on thousands of migrant workers in the late 1980s, many of them illegal immigrants from Nepal.

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