By Vidhyapati Mishra & B.M. Dhakal
When the first batch of Bhutanese refugees reached the United States of America in early 2008, little did they imagine that they would have to start working so soon. It was only after landing there that they must have realised that economic self-sufficiency is the priority for living in such a high-tech society.

Also see :
Post Resettlement Employment -I, The Rising Nepal, May 2, 2010

Bhutanese refugees were relocated to the U.S. during the economic recession, where some 6.5 million people have been laid off since the end of 2007.

In Kentucky where many Bhutanese refugees have been resettled, the decline in the employment rate ranges from 3% to 5% while in the whole country, the unemployment rate has grown to 9.7%.

Wal-Mart as a job hub

By the end of December 2009, almost every household among the resettled Bhutanese in Kentucky had at least one working member, all at entry-level jobs. Almost all of them found employment through Job Developers at the resettlement agencies such as Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM). Most of the illiterate and uneducated elderly have seasonal or temporary jobs, mostly grass-cutting and lawn mowing, gardening, house-keeping and labelling of finished products.

Ram Adhikari found work at Wal-Mart after three months of his arrival in Kentucky in 2008. Ram had studied science back in Nepal. He is a full-time associate at Wal-Mart with health insurance, sick and vacation benefits. According to him, it is not wise for young people to work 40 hours or more as they need to advance their studies.

Tika Adhikari also arrived in Kentucky in June 2008, and started working at Wal-Mart together with Ram. Having worked as a cashier for eight months, he is now in the customer service section of the super store. He finds dealing with American customers rather difficult. “Customer satisfaction is a priority in the U.S. because the rights of consumers are protected by law,” he says.

He faces a variety of customers, which he takes as a good way to learn about the consumers’ way of life, their behavioural approach, attitude and aptitude while shopping at Wal-Mart. It is a challenge to handle such diverse customers with complex mindsets, he says. Understanding the customer’s concern over the phone was initially a difficult task for the non-native English speaker. But things are going smoothly.

Kamal Bista was teaching in Biratnagar before flying to the U.S. He started as a part-time interpreter at the Kentucky Refugee Ministries where he worked for four months. He is now a full-time case worker there.

Harka Maya Rai is the eldest of a family of three sisters and a brother. She works as a house-keeper from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a hotel but has the additional responsibility of managing her family.
Insurance and benefits

In America, people buy health insurance from private companies. For refugees and people categorised as having low income, the state government provides insurance during the initial phase of their resettlement. At the work place, the employers generally have a contract signed with private insurance companies that are paid in small amounts by the employees in order to cover the medical expenses incurred, if any. Such insurance companies provide service to insured individuals on various sets of conditions.

At Wal-Mart, all full-time employees are eligible for health insurance benefits after six months of employment. Full time employees working 16 hours a week are eligible for the benefits. For part-timers, eligibility for such benefits is after one year of employment.

However, Leela Ghimire hired by Wal-Mart as a full-time employee found herself in a different situation than the prescribed provision of benefits. Says Leela, “I was called to sign a paper which would change my status from a full-time employee to a part-time one. I refused to sign the paper.”

Employers do not offer full-time working hours and adopt a tactical policy of demoting full-time employees to part-time ones, excluding them from work benefits such as health insurance, paid vacation and the like.

Some 40 Bhutanese work for Wal-Mart in Kentucky alone as cashiers, stockers, cart pushers and cleaners. It is estimated that some 500 resettled Bhutanese are currently employees of Wal-Mart in various states.

Like Wal-Mart, Mesafoods Inc. is a food company that provides employment opportunities for the refugees. There are several Bhutanese working in various shifts in this company. The insurance and vacation benefits are limited to full-time permanent employees who regularly work 40 hours a week, but part-time employees are not entitled to such benefits.

Interestingly, the company has lately adopted a policy of curtailing benefits of any full-time employee if he works less than 35 hours on average for six weeks.
Working conditions in US

Existing laws in the US prohibit employers from putting unnecessary burden or workload on an employee. Workings conditions in the factories, warehouses or in the shopping centers are meant to ensure the safety of all employees, including the contamination and transmission of diseases. In almost all jobs, employees are required to do things faster and in an efficient manner.

In manufacturing or processing factories, the labourers are expected to produce certain output in every shift they work. It means no loitering in the working area, faster accomplishment of the assigned task and regularly working for the whole shift of at least eight hours. There are generally two 15-minute breaks, and a half-hour to one hour lunch break is allowed to an employee during the work period of eight hours.

Appropriate heating and cooling arrangements are made in the work area according to the weather conditions. A labourer need not lift heavy loads or work in a life threatening situation. Most of the work is done with power-driven machines, including road and building construction. But they must work in tandem with the efficiency of the machines. Hiring and firing at the entry level jobs are very common.

(To be continued…)