When first batch of Bhutanese refugees arrived in USA in early 2008, none of them could have really thought of their prospect of being employed. It is only after landing in USA they might have become aware of the fact that economic self-sufficiency after resettlement is the priority in USA. Bhutanese refugees are brought to USA at a very bad time of economic recession in the country. The job market in the US is hard hit by the recession since the end of 2007 with 6.5 million losses of jobs.
According to the Wall Street Journal (July 3-5, 2009), there was loss of 467000 jobs in the month of June alone. The unemployment rate has risen to 9.5% meaning accelerated rate of job loss in US. In February 2008, the jobless rate was 4.8%. According to the journal, the wages have fallen by 0.3% and average working hours per week dropped to 33, which happened to at the bottom in the period of 40 years.
In Kentucky, the decline in the employment rate percent wise is 3%-5% while in the whole country the unemployment rate has grown to 9.7%. As of August 2009, the employers cut 216000 jobs and in the days ahead economists predict for more worse. According to them the unemployment rate will peak above 10% by mid-2010. September 5 edition of The Courier-Journal (Louisville based paper) writes, ‘Number of jobless Americans jumped by nearly 500,000 to 14.9 million’.
At the beginning of January 2010, the unemployment rate stands still at 10% nationally. In Jefferson county of Kentucky the unemployment rate is 10.5% in December while in Kentucky as a whole the unemployment rate is 10.7%
By the end of December 2009, almost every household had at least one working member, all but in entry-level jobs. Almost all of them got employment by the help of Job Developers at the resettlement agencies viz: Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Most of the illiterate and uneducated elderly ones got seasonal or temporary jobs.
The seasonal jobs include grass-cutting and lawn mowing, gardening, house-keeping, labeling of finished products etc. Teknath Dhakal, Chudamuni Adhikari and Loknath Ghimire were employed by the Louisvillle Metro Public Works for grass-cutting and lawn-mowing in the month of May. They are laid-off from the job after their contract for six months was over in October 2009. Three females employed in house-keeping at the Hotel Louisville were laid- off in July after working for three months.
Tanka Nath Adhikari and Ram Rai were laid-off from their green house job after working for two months in the spring. They were simply asked to take a break from the work and expected to be called back, but to no avail. Tanka Nath is going to Catholic Charities English School, yet not taken to job interview while Ram Rai got a job at the Oxmoor Center, a shopping complex.
Ram Adhikari got his job at the Wal-Mart after three months of his arrival in Kentucky in 2008. Ram studied Science back in Nepal opting for a higher paying job. He is a full-time associate of the Wal-Mart with health insurance, sick and vacation benefits. According to him, it is not wise for younger folks to continue working forty hours or more as they have to advance their study. He says, ‘I can decide to work part-time at Wal-Mart, may be three days, and join college to pursue higher studies.’
Tika Adhikari also arrived in Kentucky in the month of June 2008, and started his Wal-Mart job almost at the same time as Ram did. Having worked as a cashier for eight months, he is now in the customer service section of the same super center. He feels dealing with American customers rather difficult. ‘Customer satisfaction is the priority in US because rights of consumers are protected by law‘, he says. He is now learning to face a variety of customers which he takes as a good way to know the consumers’ way of life, the behavioral approach, attitude and aptitude of the customers that shop at the Wal-Mart. ‘But it is also challenging to handle such customers with complex mindset.’
‘Understanding the customer’s concern over the phone was initially quite a difficult task for I am a non-native English speaker,’ Tika reveals the challenge of language barrier. ‘Now things are going smoothly and I am accustomed to the consumers’ aspirations.’
Kamal Bista was teaching in Biratnagar before flying to US. He started as a part-time interpreter at Kentucky Refugee Ministries and worked for four months. He is now taken in as a full-time case worker helping the clients at the KRM.
Harka Maya Rai is the eldest of three daughters and one son of her single father. Harka is working as a house-keeper from 8 am to 3 pm in a hotel but has additional responsibility to manage her family.
The most difficult time for Hari Lal Pokhrel and Partiman Chouwan are quite over. Hari Lal got his job after nine months of his arrival in Kentucky. Both illiterates were employed by the Louisville Metro Public Works for the winter job on six months contract which is over in March 2010. Hari Lal went through difficult times in paying his house rent and utility bills because of the shortage of cash benefits his family received from the government.
Insurance and other work benefits
In USA, people buy health insurance from private companies. For refugees and people categorized as having low income, the state governments provide insurance for initial phase of their resettlement. At work place the employers generally have 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 the service to insured individuals on various set of conditions.
At the Wal-Mart, all full-time employees are eligible for the health insurance benefits after six months of employment. Working sixteen hours per week can be eligible for the benefits incase of full-time employees. For the part-time employees, time for eligibility for such benefits is beyond one year of employment. Wal-Mart has the contract with an insurance company named Blue cross-Blue shield.
However, Leela Ghimire hired by the Wal-Mart as a full-time employee had a different situation than this provision of benefits. Leela says, ‘I was called to sign a paper which would change my status from a full-time employee to part-time one. I refused to sign the paper as it was not my choice to be the part-time employee.’
Employers do not offer full-time working hours and adopt a tactical policy of demoting full-time employees to part-time, excluding them from the work benefits as health insurance, paid vacation and the like.
The Wal-Mart is the super shopping center where largest number (38) of Bhutanese are absorbed as cashiers, stockers, cart pushers, deli stewards and cleaners. For the remodelling of store another four Bhutanese are taken in recently.
Mesafoods Inc is a food company where eleven Bhutanese work in various shifts. The insurance and vacation benefits are limited to full-time permanent employees who regularly work forty hours in a week in the Mesafoods. Employees with part-time and temporary status are not entitled to such benefits. Interestingly, the company has lately adopted a policy of curtailing benefits of any employee of full-time status if he/she worked less than thirty five hours in an average of six weeks.
Hari Karki, Bishnu Nepal, Indra Pathak are among the six Bhutanese employed in a company named JCIM. Bishnu Nepal has no formal schooling in English but graduated from Sanskrit University in Varanasi, India. In practical sense, Bishnu does not think English language as the barrier for getting employment in such entry level jobs.
‘It is something that one can earn and live. Most part of the earning goes in paying house rent and utility bills, so no good amount to save for future.’
Madhu Nepal, 22, also works for the same company in the third shift. In June he had to undergo a small surgery of removing the appendix which cost him 2750 dollars, which is only twenty percent coverage of the total hospital bill at the University of Louisville Hospital. Eighty percent of the bill was covered by the insurance he had at the company. Madhu says, ‘the bills are exorbitant because I went to emergency room as the pain got intolerable.’
Cultural issues vis-à-vis employment
Given the socio-cultural make-up of Bhutanese society, employment at the entry-level jobs at the initial stage has posed certain questions on the continuation of cultural values and religious observations within the society. As expected earlier, the tradition of get together for religious or cultural and emergency needs is incipiently thinning out. In almost all cases, the work ethics are entirely different coupled with the language barrier. The most difficult time for all Bhutanese to keep their jobs is at the death of any immediate family member. People are rather worried to know that they are not going to be accepted for observing the funeral rites for longer period (thirteen days) by the employers although the country has complete religious freedom. But that is not the case always.
The Hindu temple of Louisville located some thirty miles north-east of the city is rarely visited by the Bhutanese Hindus because of the work schedules and also not having private transportation.
The issue of transmitting cultural values, teaching of Nepali language (mother tongue), dance and music to the younger children has remained unresolved because of unavailability of common location and required materials.
Tulsi Thapa resettled in Louisville of Kentucky in August 2009, lost his septuagenarian mother on November 1, 2009. In this case the employer was good enough to allow Tulsi to observe thirteen days of mourning/funeral rites and gave added income to the family by taking Tulsi’s wife into the job. He works in southern Indiana.
Dhan Bahadur Subba had to observe the mourning of his father who died in refugee camp in Nepal. Dhan and his wife made a compromise by shortening the length of mourning because of their job.
Goma Koirala got a job in housekeeping in December 2008. With her background of a social worker in the camp, she feels that culture needs to be preserved while maintaining a balance with the work ethics in US. The employer in the house keeping job do not allow to put on the traditional jewelries, the vermilion (sindur for married women) or even the wedding rings as a part of work ethics for safety purpose.
Goma feels that it is against the spirit of Hinduism to put aside the costumes which signify the marital life of men and women, but it is the regulation to be followed in work places. ‘We ought to comply with the ethical issues of job, if we have to keep it, but at the same time we have time for activities for preservation of cultural values,’ Goma says in a satisfactory tone. ‘Some people want to forget the culture sooner, but it is not wise,’ she wished to keep the tradition going for long.
Education and employment
Most of the resettled families depend on the income of younger people, majority of whom are at school/college going age. Quite a good number of these youths have completed high school (grade 12) and some have university degree. Students who passed grade ten in camp schools and have attained the age of 18 are actually discouraged from going to public schools for completing their high school course. The case-workers and case-managers at resettlement agencies (in Kentucky) provide orientation to new arrival families who basically emphasize on saving money given as cash benefit by the government or the resettlement agency.
Adults at 18 years and above are entitled to cash benefits of $ 300/month until eight months. This has to be utilized for the house rent, electricity and gas incase of no job or only a part-time job. Thus, these youths are psychologically inclined to accept the cash benefits to add to family income rather than going to school. For those who completed grade 12 or had some college in Nepal or India, the priority is employment that helps to support for education after some saving.
Krishna Kafle has an interpreting job at the Jefferson county public schools for the Bhutanese children who are admitted at the JCPS. He was a student of the Master’s degree in Tribhuwan University, Nepal before leaving for US.
Krishna wishes to continue further study in US, but feels that it is not appropriate to get admission without having proper saving. ‘It is a rather challenging to go college or university working full time. One has the limitation of appropriating money and time in order to study and excel in the desired field.’
‘Studying in US and in Nepal or India cannot be compared with respect to the depth of subject knowledge, the degree of home assignment one has to complete in each course credit hour, and variety of other obligations to be fulfilled for making oneself a good student,’ Krishna talks about the reality of American system of education. ‘There are so many pre-requisites of a course before we actually take to our main subject that we studied in Nepal. One cannot simply get a guide book with ready-made answers to learn by heart and write university examinations, preparing in a limited time period.’
‘For me, I like to have a good saving to finance my further education which might take another two to three years,’ Krishna summed up his plan to get a US degree.
Balkrishna Phuyel has a master’s degree in English from Tribhuwan University and was teaching English to high school and college students in Nepal. He thinks study in US is important for all in order to jump from blue-collar job to white-collar one. ‘As for myself, I am bit confused where to start.’
‘I wish every Bhutanese youth who had a high school or some level of college study continue their study in future despite the hurdles they face at the moment,’ Balkrishna wishes a better tomorrow for the upcoming generation.
Harka Maya Rai completed Bachelor of Arts in major English from Tribuwan University, Nepal. She wants to join CNA ( Care Nursing Assistant) but has difficulty in making it a reality. Harka does not have a plan to join college at the moment. She says, ‘I do not have enough saving to continue college study out rightly. I need to support the family as my father is not working and my two sisters do not have good income.’
Harka Maya like to have a job in the front desk in the same hotel where she works in housekeeping, but is not confident enough due to lack of computer skills. She hopes, ‘I may be able to do it with some computer training in two or three year’s time.’
Tulsi Rai working as a stocker in the Wal-Mart is the eldest son among the seven children of his single mother. Tulsi is processing his plan to study further, and it is the GED (general educational development) that he is required to get through if his plan is to bear fruit. ‘I am planning to work second or third shift so that I can go to college during the day.’ Tulsi is rather confident in maintaining the expenses working even part time because there are brothers and sisters working. ‘I think we can take a turn in pursuing higher study by a mutual understanding among us.’ When asked about the plan to make study in a specific field, he said, ‘I might look for that field only after GED.’
‘I like to get some vocational training but it is impossible to carryout academic and vocational education at the same time. Time is an important factor.’
Nandhu Neopane works at the Wal-Mart from 10 pm to 7 am. He studied sociology and major English in Nepal. He thinks that it may take another one year to manage financial resources and time to join college. ‘Evaluation of certificate to make it equivalent to the American standard is most necessary for us and we have to make our score level as required by the colleges.’
‘Working part-time to join the college is not much feasible idea for me because I have responsibility to pay the rent, utility bills and meet other expenses to manage the family,’ Nandhu disagreed working part-time only.‘I should pursue the study for I cannot remain in the same educational level for ever.’
Ram Adhikari, Chida Adhikari and Karna Kafle are taking English classes at Jefferson community college. They are required to study English, history and civics of United States before actually starting the main subject. This of course, would take three to four months for the course to finish.
Yadavi Dhakal was just eighteen when she arrived in Louisville a year ago. She was not admitted in public schools because of her age and received cash assistance under Wilson Fish program. Yadavi now works as cashier in the Wal-Mart without having any plans to furthering her education because she finds it too difficult to manage time for study with flexible work schedule.
Employment prospects for new arrivals in Kentucky
In Louisville and Lexington of Kentucky, the Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries find jobs for the adults who are employable. But catholic charities is doing better job in placing refugees in job compared to the KRM. It has become obvious to the clients that they might be placed to the job sooner in Catholic Charities than in the KRM. No many jobs are opened and the slackening economy is what all Americans blame to have less people getting employment. Two of the KRM clients Rup Narayan Pokhrel and Deo Narayan Pokhrel moved to Pennsylvania after having waited to get the job for almost a year.
Working conditions in US
Existing laws in US prohibit employers to put unnecessary burden of workload on any employee. Working conditions in factories, warehouses or in shopping centers are set 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 laborers are expected to produce certain output per 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 fifteen minutes break and a half hour to one hour lunch break 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. Unlike the seasonal agriculture labor or manual labor in construction, a laborer need not lift heavy loads or work in a life threatening situations. Most of the work is done with power-driven machines, including road and building construction where human labor is less required but have to work in tandem with the efficiency of machines. Hiring and firing in the entry level jobs are very common.
Qualifications and experience matter less
No matter how much qualified you are when you come as a refugee in US. The first job the resettlement agencies help refugees to find is an entry level or that involve the physical work as a manual laborer. All Bhutanese refugees are unskilled except for those who has a Phd. The work experience in refugee camp and in Nepal or India is not accounted by the employers and they need the work experience in US.
Very few of the refugees can apply for the job on their own and less of them get by themselves. You need to be referred by someone who already has worked in US or have to go through the agencies. Your certificates are not required for applying to jobs like cashiers, stewards, dishwashers, packaging, stocking, grass cutting and lawn mowing. Semi-skilled jobs like plumbing, electrical wiring, auto-mechanics, masonry also require the US education and training. If you have worked as an auto mechanic in Nepal or India for several years, you have still to wait to get same job even when you are perfect.