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Scarce labour sends wages through the roof in Bhutan

Aug 14, 2012

Blame it on development, rural to urban migration or anything else, but the farms are facing increasing shortage of labour. The labour demand in the booming construction industry is seen as contributing to the shortage of labour on the farms. The shortage of labour on the farms is fuelling the increasing labour cost in the villages.

Today, the farms are often tended by the elderly and women while able-bodied men find other ways to earn their livelihood. Some of the skilled local labourers say they make a decent income from construction of both public and private infrastructure.

“I must admit that I am earning no less than a first class officer in the government by putting to good use my carpentry and masonry skills,” said Tashi Phuntsho from Gamung village. He said that the demand for skilled labour is rising and that he sees better opportunities ahead in the coming years.

“I tell my school-going children that, if they succeed academically, I will keep supporting them but the moment they fail, they can opt for skill training because that is where the opportunities lie,” Tashi Phuntsho said, adding that eight people from his village, who are serving an apprenticeship under him, are also earning a good income.

Sonam, another skilled worker from Khothakpa village, agrees that because the clients are desperate to get their works done, they are willing to pay well. Despite this, he expressed his reluctance to take up any work for daily wages.

Asked about the rate of their wages, both Sonam and Tashi Phuntsho chose to answer indirectly by saying that for tilling land for half a day, a pair of oxen earn Nu 600. For  a skilled worker, clients pay substantially higher.

Sonam prefers to stay at home and do fabrication works. He said he can easily make a pair of bamboo bows with improved wooden handle in a day, and each of these bows sell for Nu 600. “At other times, making a Chogdrom, a common Bhutanese table, can earn as much as Nu 2,000 a day,” Sonam said.

Tashi Phuntsho admitted that, while he also seldom works for daily wages, on average, his daily earning hovers around Nu 1,000. He said that the demand for the skilled workers are so high that a few months back he undertook three different private construction works at a time enabling him to make a good income. Despite the market demand, he said that he takes utmost care to maintain good workmanship.

Chejey Wangdi, a farmer from Shali village, said the demand for skilled hand and ample opportunities in the construction sector and elsewhere meant that farm works are suffering for want of labourers.

“Even those in the villages are abandoning farm works in pursuit of better income generating jobs leaving the farms to be tended by the elderly and women in most cases,” he said. “There are very few people like me in the villages who believe that even when everything else fails, it will be farms that will prove to be dependable.”

Sangay, another farmer, said farming has become difficult. The shortage of labour in the villages has been made more acute by alternative income generating alternatives everywhere. He said it is now becoming increasingly difficult to satisfy the expectation of farm hands. “We need to feed them well and pay them much higher than the minimum national wage, or else, we risk our land going fallow,” he said.

According to Sangay, although he is well aware of the poor economic return from farming, because of low production cost, he merely follows it to keep the tradition alive and to prevent land from going fallow.

But he admitted his apprehension about how long this can go on in the face of increasing challenges, especially labour shortage and escalating labour and other costs.

These days, it has become a common practice to treat the farm workers to a grand feast with abundant drinks, or else, nobody will turn up for the work next time. Even with this lavish treatment, hiring people to work on farms is becoming increasingly difficult.

Wangdi, a farmer from Bartseri village, admitted that, after going around three villages, he managed to find just one worker who agreed to come and work on his farm for a day.

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