The number of foreign workers, legal or otherwise, in Bangladesh has been more of a mystery than anything else. None of the relevant government agencies does know their actual number notwithstanding the fact that some policymakers have on occasions expressed concern in public over the issue.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is supposed to know the number of foreign workers, but it does not have an authentic one. The fact remains that it is hard to get the actual number of foreign workers employed in manufacturing and services sectors.
The statistics compiled by relevant agencies that issue work permits to foreign workers vary widely. There is no central agency responsible for issuing work permits to foreign workers. The Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA), the Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) and the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA), among others, are authorised to issue work permits independently.
The aggregate number of work permits issued by these three agencies is far too small compared to the number of foreign workers that the home minister mentioned early last year in parliament. However, this kind of confusion over official statistics is nothing surprising. The reliability of official statistics is very often questioned by experts and multinational institutions both at home and abroad.
The popular perception is that a large number of foreign workers are now employed in the country and they have been taking out a sizeable amount of foreign currency using illegal routes every year. Some unofficial reports on outward remittance amounting to nearly US$ 5.0 billion a year have only strengthened such a perception. In the absence of any reliable statistics, it is really difficult to accept or reject such a notional estimate.
In such a situation, if not any other agency, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) is, seemingly, not happy with the amount of tax it receives from the foreign taxpayers.
The Board has reportedly devised fiscal policies, conducted physical inspection and formed taskforces during the last few years to locate tax-evading foreign workers and raise tax collection. But all these efforts paid almost no dividend. The number of foreign taxpayers hovered around 9,500 during the last three financial years. The number is too small, no doubt. But the NBR should continue its efforts.
It is not just about illegal foreign workers in Bangladesh. The relevant government agencies, it seems, have the faintest idea about the overstaying foreigners. The truth is there has not been any serious effort on their part to locate the illegal aliens and take legal actions.
There is no denying that Bangladesh is not an ideal place for foreign nationals to come and overstay without any tangible reason. Yet a good number of foreigners, particularly those coming from African countries, are overstaying. It is suspected that these people are involved in various criminal activities --mainly financial. The Africans are living in both posh and middleclass residential areas.
However, the law enforcing agencies are found to be indifferent to this particular problem. The reasons are best known to them.