[We Care, We Share] Inspiring story: Away from Home: Students in action

We Care, We Share

UN and JICA Bhutan’s joint initiative – Resilience tools for COVID-19

Away from Home: Students in Action

Tshering has been away from home for the past 7 weeks. A Class 8 student and 17 years old, he remembers the first day when he reached the depot. He had never seen so many oranges in his entire life. Ever since 2020, there has been a huge decline in the number of foreign workers in the country. The virus has created an absence in many export depots, ranging from areas in the construction sector to the manufacturing sector. As a temporary means, depots are filled with young Bhutanese workers involved in unloading, grading, and packing of the oranges for export.

“We heard about the job in early December. Every winter holiday, I look for temporary jobs. The year before, I worked at a construction site and brick factory. But I had never heard about work at the orange depots before, so I was interested. The depot is more than an hour’s drive from Phuentsholing and we live here until the end of our January. We are given meals and a place to sleep. There are about 11 students working here currently, most of them are my friends from school,” says Tshering.

At the orange depot, the workers unload trucks filled with oranges. They grade the oranges according to size and pack them in wooden boxes lined with newspaper.  According to Tshering, about four trucks and two mini trucks would visit the depot and on some days they would come at night. These Bhutanese oranges are exported to Bangladesh through India. The unloading and packing of the oranges were previously done by border Indian workers but with the pandemic there are less workers available.

“The first day was a little difficult, we were trying learn what we were supposed to do and that took some getting used to. Now, after 5 weeks, we have learned a lot about oranges and the market for them. These are all skills that anyone can acquire. When we are packing the oranges, we are in groups and share many conversations, its very relaxing. Compared to the work I did before, this is much easier and pays more. Working on a construction sites is a lot tougher and dustier,” says Tshering. 

“In the villages, children help their parents during the holidays in the fields, or at home. Similarly, we help our parents in ways we can, although the setting is different. Sometimes, it gets difficult for parents to make ends meet. There must be an innate responsibility in giving back to your parents and families. To help your parents when they need help. You don’t necessarily have to be old to do that,” says Tshering.

 Most of these jobs are yet to gain popularity in the country. At the time when schools first started in Bhutan, there are stories of parents unwillingto send their children to school. Parents would hide their children in cow sheds when government personnel came advocating for school education. Bhutan has undergone a significant shift in development and mindset in the last 50 years. Nowadays, most children opt to go to school and work proudly behind desks, rather than work in manual jobs getting their hands and feet dirty. This has led to a growing imbalance in the workforce. While Bhutan has a relatively young population, a mismatch of jobs has emerged, and the demographic dividend remains untapped.

“When people I know see me working at an orange depot or on a construction site, covered in dust and reeking of citrus, I don’t see any need to feel embarrassed at all. If we are embarrassed, then we won’t be able to serve our country or even work. I am happy that I am able to help my parents in these little ways. I can buy my own school stationeries and books, and that means a lot to my family,” says Tshering.

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