The migration cost of Saudi-bound Bangladeshi workers has gone up by at least Tk20,000 in recent months as their recruiting agencies are charging them the extra amount on the pretext of an uncalled-for expenditure on getting work visas issued by the embassy in Dhaka.
Bangladeshi labour recruiting agents have alleged that they have to pay the embassy $220-$250 "unofficially" through middlemen against each application for work visa, otherwise the embassy does not issue visas.
The Saudi Embassy, however, has told The Business Standard that there are no fees or charges associated with applying for a visa at the embassy.
The recruiting agencies have also claimed that the secret payment has been going on for about a year.
To get a work visa issued, recruiting agencies have to pay the brokers in US dollars directly, they said, adding that this additional expenditure ultimately is passed on to the workers, pushing their migration cost which is already much higher than the official rate amid widespread illegal transactions to pay for work visas.
The government-fixed immigration cost to go to Saudi Arabia is Tk1.65 lakh, but a Saudi-bound worker has to spend Tk3.5-4 lakh for the purpose.
New addition to 'visa trading'
"Visa trading" – the procurement of demand letters from employers by middlemen and their sales to recruiting agencies in source countries, such as Bangladesh – is illegal.
But the practice remains widespread, forcing jobseekers to cough up extra amounts of money as they prepare for work overseas.
Now, the extra payment of money to the embassy for issuing visas is a new addition to the existing illegal deals, say recruiters.
"The Saudi Embassy did not issue a visa against any of the passports submitted by my agency in six months until this May," a recruiting agent wishing anonymity told TBS.
"Since there was no other way, I started paying $220 against each passport through brokers. And, in the past three months, the embassy has issued about 200 visas against passports submitted by my agency," he said.
Asked who the brokers are, he said they are not staff members of the Saudi Embassy. "But it appears that the brokers have inside connections in the embassy. In particular, they may have contacts with some Bangalee officials there," he said.
Currently, around 700 Bangladeshi recruiting agencies out of 1,500 registered ones are enlisted with the Saudi Embassy and can send workers to the Gulf country, according to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira).
An agency is allowed to submit a maximum of 30 passports to the Saudi Embassy a week, but there is no cap on the number of passports of female workers.
"If an agency has 400 demand letters to send workers in a month, it can legitimately submit a maximum of 120 passports at the Embassy," said a former leader of Baira on condition of anonymity, adding, "Sometimes, the authorities return many of the submitted passports without mentioning any reason."
"However, more than 100 passports are being received at a time and visas are being issued against them too through the back door. As such, recruiting agencies are being forced to pay dollars [for obtaining visas]," he added.
Tasneem Siddiqui, founding chair of the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU), said, "Paying money through brokers for getting visas is a new addition to visa trading. The Saudi Embassy should take action against this."
What Saudi Embassy says
TBS had written an email to the Saudi Embassy, asking for its statement on the allegations.
In response, the embassy, referring to Saudi Ambassador in Dhaka Issa bin Youssef Al-Dahilan, said, "The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia would like to reassure that there are no fees or charges associated with applying for a visa at the Embassy. In this instance, referred to as Enjaj (an electronic application for the Saudi visa), the applicant is required to pay a nominal fee, and the payment is made online, not cash.
"Some visa brokers, middleman, dalal, and agents might have taken extra money from visa applicants by exploiting the Embassy's name. Again, there is no direct way to conduct transactions with the Saudi Embassy."
Meanwhile, the Saudi envoy at a press conference on 22 June this year at the embassy, said they had issued around 6 lakh visas thus far this year, all of which were work visas.
"We are also issuing business and tourist visas," he added.
"We are struggling to cope with the huge pressure of visa applicants. Every day, 8,000-10,000 visas are issued. There is a plan to increase the daily visa issuance rate in the future," he mentioned.
On 24 February this year, the Saudi Embassy in Dhaka issued 12,300 visas – an all-time high visa issuance in a single day so far.
Saudi Arabia, the largest destination of Bangladeshi workers, generated 63% of all overseas jobs for Bangladeshi migrant workers this year till June, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
About 3.85 lakh Bangladeshis were employed in the Kingdom in the first six months of 2022, while the total foreign employment was about 6.14 lakh.
Bangladeshis working in Saudi Arabia sent home around $8,955 million in the same period.
At present, around 23 lakh Bangladeshis are employed in various sectors in the country.
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.
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.