Need for authentic data on foreign workers  

Need for authentic data on foreign workers   

The fact that as much as $5 billion gets remitted from the country annually by foreign nationals is no big surprise, but what in reality is more than a surprise is that a bulk of the expat professionals live and work in the country without proper authorisation.

Although the government agencies have no statistics on the number of foreign nationals working in Bangladesh, different NGOs have estimated that the number might be around half a million and that more than $5.0 billion flows out of the country annually as remittance. According to private sector sources, a good number of foreign professionals are engaged in Bangladesh's apparel, textile, buying house, telecommunication, information technology, poultry and poultry feed sectors and most of them are working without permission. According to a study conducted by the Centre of Excellence for Bangladesh Apparel Industry titled 'Employment of Expatriates and its Alternatives in the RMG Sector of Bangladesh' in collaboration with the Faculty of Business Studies of Dhaka University, some five hundred thousand foreigners are working in Bangladesh and only one-fifth of them are registered with the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority, Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority and NGO Affairs Bureau.

Bangladesh does need skilled workers in certain sectors including garment and high-tech manufacturing. But except in a few instances, a large majority of the foreign workers including mid-level supervisors and managers get employed without legal documents. Employment without legal documents is grossly irregular and punishable under law. Concerned authorities, including the immigration department, haven't done anything noticeable to ensure that only authorised persons are employed. Also, it is often alleged that taking advantage of the lax or no vigilance, a large number of unauthorised people are currently engaged in private hospitals, even elementary schools. Not all of them overstay, they go back and enter with fresh visas to continue with what they were doing. Their employers, for the most part, are the main facilitators in their illegal activities.

The media have been reporting the illegal practice for long. The main point being that when unauthorised persons get employed by local businesses and manufacturing houses, they take their earnings through unofficial channels, that too in foreign currency. Over and above, taxes liable to be paid are evaded.

Lately, it has come to light that the National Board of Revenue (NBR) is set to launch a drive to find out unauthorised foreigners working in local business entities. The NBR suspects that a significant amount on account of income tax is being evaded for years by foreigners working illegally in the country. A taskforce has reportedly been formed to carry out inspection on some randomly selected factories or business premises in the capital in order to collect details of foreign employees and their legal and tax payment status. Beside bringing to book tax evading foreigners, the drive also aims at penalising the employers for recruiting unauthorised foreigners. According to the income tax law, an employer will face a penalty as much as 50 per cent of his or her total payable tax or taka half a million for employing even a single foreign national without work permit from the competent authorities. The NBR is also competent to scrap tax benefits including tax holiday facility for the export-oriented companies, if found guilty of conniving with the foreign workers in tax evasion.

It is clear enough that the NBR is concerned more about the taxes it is losing for years. But when it comes to unauthorised employment not only in typical business entities but also in a host of other areas, including healthcare services and educational institutions, the onus is obviously on the immigration authorities and relevant law enforcers to see to it that no foreigner is employed without valid work permit.

There should have been a data base of foreigners legally working in the country. This, on the one hand, would have facilitated the NBR to remain apprised of their tax payment status, and on the other, ensure their legal stay in the country. It appears that no such functional database exists. Records of work permit are of course available with the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA), but these are perhaps not meant for policing.

There is thus the need to move in a coordinated manner. The relevant agencies should team up in an effective way so that they don't run out of required information on foreigners working in the country as well as those being employed in violation of law. There is more to the issue that need immediate attention. Quite often we come upon reports of grave financial frauds, and in many cases these are orchestrated by foreigners legally or illegally living in the country with serious criminal track records, collaborated by their local aides. These acts range from making counterfeit currency notes, manipulating ATM money withdrawal system to cheating of all conceivable methods and techniques. A good number of such elements might be hiding under cover of employment.

As for legal employment, isn't it necessary that the authorities checked whether the type of job for which a foreigner has been sponsored/employed by a local company is one for which services of an expatriate is absolutely necessary? If the relevant authorities are alert, chances are high that many work permit applications will fail to address this important issue.

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