The Financial Express

Foreign workers' database

Foreign workers' database

It is unfortunate that the moves to streamline foreigners' jobs in the country have mostly fallen flat. All major steps taken by government agencies to check illegal employment of and tax evasion by foreign nationals and to prepare a database of such nationals have remained mostly on paper even after more than half a decade.

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, telecommunication, information technology, poultry and poultry feed sectors and a large number of them are working without permission. According to a study conducted sometime ago 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, around 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 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. The 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, 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 of income tax is being evaded for years by foreigners illegally working 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 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 appropriate 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 at 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 ensure that no foreigner is employed without valid work permit.

There should have been a database 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 database exists.

There is thus the need to team up in an effective way so that the authorities do not 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 needs 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 in collaboration with 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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