- 'Visa trading' is a major reason behind high migration costs
- In 2016, an estimated $2.1 billion was laundered out of Bangladesh for illegal purchases of work visas
- Visas were purchased illegally in 90% of cases, whereas visas actually do not have a cost
- Recruiters pay at least Tk1.20 lakh per visa to Saudi employers
- Employers and agents in Qatar demand kickbacks of about $300 to $500 for each worker from agents in labour-sending countries
- Undue competition among recruiting agencies instigates employers to sell visas at high cost
"Visa trading" – the procuring of visas from employers by middlemen and their sales to recruiting agencies in source countries like Bangladesh – is illegal. But the practice remains widespread, forcing jobseekers to cough up extra amounts of money as they prepare for work overseas.
In 2019, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia entered into an agreement to stop "visa trading" that heavily increases recruitment costs, and contributes to debt bondage and forced labour abroad, but there has been no visible progress yet in putting a stop to the illegal practice.
An undue competition among recruiting agencies instigates employers to sell visas at high costs.
These underhand dealings are the major reasons behind the high migration costs which play an important role in a laundering of money from Bangladesh to migrants' destination countries.
In 2016, an estimated $2.1 billion was laundered out of Bangladesh through illegal transactions to pay for work visas, which are officially supposed to be free of cost, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Singapore and Malaysia, according to Transparency International Bangladesh.
In 90% of the cases, visas – which actually have no cost – are purchased illegally, it added.
Powerful syndicates in destination countries are involved in this illegal practice by taking advantage of the high demand for such permits in Bangladesh and a lack of effective negotiations to ensure compliance.
"Visas are processed in multiple systems. One is through employer companies, the other is through the private sector, which is known as so called 'free-visa'," said Tipu Sultan, proprietor of Rajdhani International.
"Agencies usually collect more visas from companies. In that case, one has to pay a minimum of 5,000 riyals (Tk1.20 lakh) per visa in Saudi Arabia. Usually, the cost of Iqama (work permit) is borne by the employer company," he added.
However, in the case of a "free visa", an overseas jobseeker has to bear a cost of around Tk2 lakh (9,000-9,500 riyals) for Iqama. In such cases, a migrant worker has to spend an extra Tk3-3.5 lakh in the destination country.
Tipu Sultan said, "Visa fees have to be paid because of uneven competition among recruiting agencies. We received visas from a company in Qatar for free. But another agency is going there and buying each visa for 5,000-6,000 riyals."
"It has to be paid illegally. Basically, this is known as 'visa trading'. In such cases, usually there is no transaction through banking channels," he added.
Qatar's interior ministry said earlier that the punishment for illegal visa trading is maximum imprisonment of up to three years and/or a fine of up to QR50,000 for the first time and QR100,000 in the case of a repetition of the offence, reports The Peninsula.
Authorities called upon the public to not deal with promoters of such visas in order to avoid accountability and to abide by the laws and procedures.
However, in some cases, employers or agents in Qatar secure visas to recruit workers and then demand kickbacks of about $300 to $500 for each worker from agents in labour-sending countries in exchange for the visas, the cost of which is passed on to workers.
In addition to this, low-wage migrant workers have been forced to pay billions of dollars in recruitment fees to secure their jobs in Qatar over the past decade, a Guardian investigation has recently found.
Bangladeshi men migrating to Qatar are likely to have paid about $1.5b in fees, and possibly as high as $2b, between 2011 and 2020, it added.
Migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal, who make up around a third of Qatar's 2-million strong foreign workforce, typically pay fees of $3,000 to $4,000 and $1,000 to $1,500, respectively.
Charging fees for recruitment is illegal in Qatar, but the practice is widespread and deeply entrenched. It is commonplace in all the Gulf countries.
It takes different forms, but often sees companies or brokers in Qatar and recruitment agents in labour-sending countries in collusion to force workers into paying for their own recruitment. The fees are paid to agents in workers' home countries before departure.
The Qatar government told The Guardian that companies involved in illegal recruitment practices have been severely punished. Twenty-four recruitment agencies were recently shut down and had their licences revoked for breaking Qatar's laws.
Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, former secretary general of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), told TBS, "The visa procurement system is one of the reasons why immigration costs are higher in Bangladesh than in any other worker-sending country. Middlemen work in both destination and sending countries."
"It is not visa trading. We rather have marketing costs involved in bringing demand letters from employers. A minimum amount should be allowed for this cost. It can be fixed at $500. If these are not brought within the legal frame, the cost cannot be controlled," he added.
He said the migration cost will come down if foreign employers recruit workers by sending visas directly, excluding the involvement of middlemen.
Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, secretary of the expatriates' welfare and overseas employment ministry, blamed "visa trading" by middlemen in both the countries of origin and destination for the high costs of recruitment. He said legal action was immediately taken against recruitment agencies when complaints of unfair recruitment practices were received.
"The government of Bangladesh is strongly committed to ensuring safe, orderly, regular and responsible work migration," he added.