Foreign workers recruitment agents to be corporatized as SOEs

Ministry of Labour and Human Resources

The SOE will generate revenue by implementing its strategies, plans, and programs and create employment opportunities among others

LHAKPA TSHERING | Thimphu

The government’s decision to establish the foreign workers’ recruitment agents as a state-owned enterprise (SOE) will aim at bringing a holistic reform in administration and management systems through efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery.

The move comes following a study by an independent research team on the ‘Effectiveness of the Foreign Workers Sourcing, Recruitment, Management, Deployment and Repatriation’ in 2021 that recommended instituting SOE for foreign workers recruitment.

To execute the recommendations, the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR) as the portfolio ministry prepared a detailed project report which was submitted to the government in December 2021 and received in-principle approval of the proposal.

The ministry’s department of labor (DoL) in an email interview stated the past lessons and the findings of the study pointed out the need for a centralized system to recruit and manage foreign workers, and currently they are working on providing further clarity in some areas of the SOE’s mandates.

The study, according to the ministry, found SOE to be the best alternative to serve the interests of the nation, economy, and employers by ensuring operational autonomy and allowing it to generate revenue for implementing its strategies, plans, and programs the way it desires.

“As a corporate entity, it has more leverage to coordinate with the government agencies and other stakeholders,” the ministry stated, adding it will further create employment opportunities in various occupations.

The ministry explains the central tenet to provide integrated solutions in meeting the market demand for workers by ensuring a good balance of foreign and domestic workers.

Such a move is expected to take better care of foreign workers in the country to ensure the provision of a good working environment, living conditions, and other necessary support services while also uplifting their image, ensuring safety, and protecting their rights.

To help assure local employers access to FWs with good knowledge and skills that can help increase the firm’s overall productivity and improve output quality, it has planned a new initiative – skills testing system – that requires a strong industry body to design and conduct the skills tests.

Besides, one agency providing single window services with professional service standards will rule out possibilities of non-uniformity in service quality, anomalies in data maintenance, reporting issues, among others, while also easing regulatory aspects and ensuring conformance to its laws, government policies, guidelines, and protocols.

Meanwhile, in recent years, there appear to be deeply held views that government support for privatization has been waning despite the general success of privatization. However, the ministry says that the support for privatization and private sector growth continues to be the government’s priority.

“The ministry is hopeful that the general public has a better understanding of the intent of establishing the SOE and that the stakeholders render all the support necessary for the smooth implementation of the proposed plan,” it stated.

While the possibilities of involving private sectors had been explored and are still being discussed, it would encourage participation in the logistics area such as transportation, running mess at the quarantine centers, carrying out diagnostic services, and providing other related services.

Challenges and way forward

The ministry said the matter related to the recruitment and management of FWs is complex and requires a lot of resources, time, and expertise. “We have to function amid many constraints and work towards continuously improving the system and therefore, the quality of our services.”

Past incidents show reports of illegal recruitment and delay in paying salary or wages, and a lack of decent working conditions and safer working environments for the foreign workers.

Despite efforts from the concerned agencies and mechanisms in place to prevent and monitor the issues, controlling illegal immigrants remains the biggest challenge.

The ministry, however, said such cases were rarely linked with the formal recruitment process that occurred due to lack of a proper mechanism to manage the practice of engaging the day, casual and overnight stays workers in the border towns. It had supposedly led to the cases of unaccounted FWs in the country.

To tackle such issues, the ministry proposed the introduction of the biometric system and issuing work permits to these workers.

Besides, for better service delivery, the ministry is also working to revamp the present Labour Net System as the Foreign Workers Management System that will serve as a single and integrated system.

In addition, the ministry is also expected to pilot and roll out the updated system for the audit trail in the coming months. This is to enhance transparency and accountability mechanisms that will address the issues related to the FWs recruitment.

Talking about delay in payment of salaries or wages, the ministry says they can intervene less for the construction sectors under the Labour and Employment Act given that most employers prefer to contract out the works to foreign labor contractors.

However, this issue is prevalent among the Bhutanese workers and the ministry says they have given constant efforts to address it when it receives formal complaints and its inspections detect the problem.

Another challenge is to enforce regulations on workers’ accommodation in the absence of workers’ housing schemes or centralized workers’ accommodation facilities. “We could only check whether the campsites have access to electricity, water, toilets, and other amenities during our inspections,” says the ministry.

As the employers arrange accommodation for FWs, they usually house the FWs in temporary shelters at the work site for cost and convenience. These arrangements lead to substandard accommodation creating undesirable living conditions.

The labor department has the mechanism to receive complaints and grievances from FWs. “We are serious about the timely settlement of any work-related disputes,” it continued, adding that they are working to improve the coordination with relevant agencies.

Strict compliance with rules and regulations

The corporatization will allow the DoL to focus on the effective enforcement of labor laws and regulations with the SOE taking over the process of FWs recruitment and management.

The department will monitor workplace compliance with working conditions and occupational health and safety (OHS) regulations through regular, follow-up, and special inspections.

It also adopted a mix of awareness campaigns including OHS standards and practices among FWs, worksite inspections, and partnership building with the employers for self-regulation and compliance, focusing on both preventive and corrective measures.

However, frequently reaching out to hundreds of worksites is difficult because of resource constraints. “It becomes even more challenging when FWs are not so keen to comply with the OHS practices as they are not used to it.”

They say a major initiative is underway to balance educative and inspectorate functions. “We are trying to promote social dialogue with the employers and workers and build a partnership with them to instill a need for self-regulation and better compliance with the OHS regulations.”

In addition, the department of immigration (DoI) under the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs (MoHCA) is strengthening the entry and exit strategies in collaboration with the Royal Bhutan Police to curtail illegal immigration.

Also, DoL monitors the worksite environment and plans to improve the accommodation standards in the campsites and explore the option of establishing FWs dormitories in the long run.

“We can also mandate the SOE to ensure that the minimum campsite facilities are in place either through its initiative, in collaboration with the employers or involvement of private players,” says the ministry.