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U.S., Bhutan: Depending on Foreign Labor


The country of Bhutan is worlds apart from the United States. It's isolated in the Himalayas. It's a Buddhist country, and it's basing its new constitution on Buddhist principles. But on a recent trip to Bhutan, commentator Paul Rosenzweig found that there is one similarity between the Bhutanese economy and our own.


Many believe that America has a problem with illegal foreign workers because of the influx of Hispanics across our southern border. But the question is not unique to our country. Consider the Kingdom of Bhutan. That isolated mountain country has a total adult work force of roughly 200,000, and nearly a quarter of that number, 45,000, are foreign workers from India, immediately to Bhutan's south. Bhutan is suffused with the values and culture of Buddhism. India, by contrast, is predominantly Hindu with different values and beliefs. But the Indian workers are essential to Bhutan.

As I traveled the country, I saw crews of Indians working on road construction in the highest mountain passes. They were camped by the side of the road under blue tarp tents, washing in the mountain streams and accompanied by their wives and young children. It seems an amazingly hard life, but I can only imagine the conditions in India that they left behind. And without that labor force, Bhutan would lack the manual labor it needs for its growth.

When I met with the minister of labor, what concerned him most was this problem of dependence and cultural identity. For if the composition of your population changes, if nearly a quarter of your work force is foreign nationals who practice a different religion and speak a different language, then your country may quickly become something different from what it is right now. And if, like the Bhutanese, you value the distinctive, indeed, unique cultural heritage of your country, you don't want that change to happen.

The question then is how to prevent it, and the Bhutanese, interestingly, have come up with a solution that looks very much like the one that President Bush has proposed for America. They operate a foreign worker program that allows only temporary residence within Bhutan for foreign workers. They must return periodically to India, and Bhutan combines that rule with a regulatory system that imposes reporting obligations and punishments on the Bhutanese employer.

Does it work? It's difficult to say. It does turn the illegal traffic and foreign workers into legal activity subject to regulation and limitation. But one wonders whether fundamentally a guest worker program is effective. Guest workers who bring their families with them and then return home only to be replaced by another laborer from the same town don't really have any less effect on the culture of a country than would workers who move permanently to Bhutan. Bhutan's solution may work in the near term. It limits the forces of social change. But in the long run, it's unlikely to succeed in keeping outside cultural influences at bay.

But Bhutan's method does hold one lesson for America. Legalizing conduct and regularizing it makes it far easier to manage. Like Bhutan, we should figure out a way to turn our illegal immigration traffic into legal conduct.

BLOCK: Paul Rosenzweig is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paul Rosenzweig