Bhutan is largely a migrant-receiving country and applies stringent regulations on migrants. In 2004, Bhutan imposed a ceiling of 45,000 foreign workers in the country (Pramar 2004). This ceiling is periodically adjusted “depending on economic activities, national security and supply of Bhutanese workforce” (Bhutan Ministry of Labour and Human Resources 2011).
The Ministry of Labour and Human Resources of Bhutan publishes and updates regularly detailed records of all foreign workers in Bhutan. The number of recorded foreign workers in the country as of 1 August 2011 was 46,895, of whom more than 99 per cent of them were male. The vast majority of them, more than 98 per cent, originated from India and by far, the largest share (about 75 per cent) worked in the construction sector (table 1). Based on the figures, foreign workers account for about 15 per cent of the Bhutanese workforce (Bhutan, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources 2011).
The Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan estimated that outward remittances by Indian migrants working in Bhutan stood at $23.09 million in 2006 (UNDP and others 2010).
Bhutan has strategically placed industrial plants and special economic zones along the southern border with India. These zones give manufacturers easier access to the Indian market and daily foreign workers from across the border. Although foreign workers are not permitted to be employed in Bhutan without a work permit, the open border between India and Bhutan has reportedly resulted in irregular foreign labourers in the border towns as daily wage earners. In the last few years, the Government has applied stronger measures to curtail the hiring of foreign daily labour in order to free up jobs for unemployed Bhutanese (Sanam 2010).
According to a recent report, almost one fifth of the Bhutanese firms surveyed reported that difficulty in getting access to foreign workers was a major or severe obstacle. A government online system for applying for permission to hire skilled foreign workers was believed to be working well, but regulations were hindering access to both skilled and low-skilled foreign labour. In addition, the required use of third party agents licensed by the Government to hire low-skilled foreign labour was considered to be costly and not advantageous for business (World Bank 2010).
Bhutan has adopted strict policies on immigration. In 2007, the National Assembly of Bhutan passed the Immigration Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The Preamble states that the Act aims to ensure that the Kingdom remains free from illegal immigrants and that it would retain control over the immigration of foreigners for the security and prosperity of the nation.2
The Handbook on the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Workers compiles all the procedures laid down in the Immigration Act and Labour Act with respect to contract conditions, recruitment agencies and other directives. It states that only skilled persons and technicians not available among the Bhutanese population would be approved for recruitment and employment by the Labour Recruitment Committee. In addition, a number of occupations have been closed to foreign workers since 1 June 2004, including, among them, accountants, tailors, drivers, gardeners and hairdressers.3
The Immigration Act differentiates between “highly skilled, professional, and technical experts” and “skilled and technical workers”, with the former being defined as foreigners who have “extraordinary ability in the field of science, art, education, business, or sports, which has been demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim and whose achievements have been recognized in the field through extensive documentation”. The normal duration of contracts for highly skilled, professional and technical experts should not exceed three years, while the maximum period for skilled and technical workers is one year.
Only those who are confirmed to be physically and mentally fit by a medical fitness certificate issued by a professional medical practitioner from a hospital in Bhutan can be recruited and employed as a foreign worker. Access to basic health-care services in general are provided free of cost to Bhutanese nationals and accessible to foreign workers as well.
For the construction sector, the Government encourages recruitment of male members, and foreign workers are discouraged from bringing families/relatives to Bhutan during their contract period. Only those recruited for regular and permanent positions are permitted to bring their spouse and children. All foreign workers are required to come into the country through registered foreign workers recruitment agents, who are responsible for them during their stay in the country and must ensure their departure when their contract is completed.
A foreign worker is allowed to work only at the specified work site and in the occupation stated in the work permit, and a special permit is required for them to work in certain designated areas. A section in the Immigration Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2007, referred to as “inspection, suspension, cancellation and revocation” gives provisions for spot checking in public places, as well as regular field inspections in all residential, commercial, private, and official premises, to identify irregular migrants and unauthorized foreign workers in the country. A heavy financial penalty can be levied on the employer of a foreign worker without a permit with even possible imprisonment, and immediate deportation of a foreign worker.4
2 See www.dit.gov.bt/sites/default/files/ImmigrationAct2007.pdf.
3 See www.molhr.gov.bt/publication/hbook.pdf.
4 See www.dit.gov.bt/sites/default/files/ImmigrationAct2007.pdf.