Bangladesh's economy is at risk due to a staggering number of underemployed labour reaching as high as 66 lakh, but more than two lakh foreign employees are taking a bite out of the country's industrial sector.
Speaking at an event on Sunday, several experts revealed that foreigners employed in Bangladesh withdraw salary exceeding $6 billion annually and the inadequate skill of human resource in the country should be blamed for the issue.
The government has no reliable information regarding the exact figure of foreigners employed in Bangladesh and their net income.
According to Home Ministry sources, a total of 85,486 people are employed in Bangladesh from 44 countries, but the figure is 2.46 lakh according to the Special Branch of police.
However, other government sources claim the number of employed foreigners may exceed one million and their income could be higher than three to five times of the estimated $6 billion.
Addressing the opening session of the seminar titled "Formulating the National Action Plan for Skills Development," Salman F Rahman, private industry and investment advisor to the prime minister said, "The readymade garment industry is employing foreigners in mid-level positions even after three decades since the industry flourished.
"The human resource of Bangladesh must upgrade their skill to become employable in foreign and domestic industries."
In recent years, foreigners who were hired by factories in senior technical and managerial positions, then hired more foreigners citing unavailability of qualified local people.
Speaking to The Business Standard, Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of World Bank Bangladesh said, "Foreigners' employment would be justified if they work in sectors where Bangladesh has no skilled manpower.
"But we saw the practice of employing foreigners at sectors that have sufficiently skilled local manpower available. The government is losing revenue due to a lack of capacity for calculating how many foreigners are working in which sectors. This is not acceptable."
The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics has plans to identify the number of foreigners working in Bangladesh in the next population census.
Jahidul Haque Sarder, director for Population and Housing Census 2021 of the bureau said, "The next census scheduled for 2021 will include Bangladeshi people working in other countries and foreigners working in Bangladesh.
"The bureau officials will collect information from households, offices, factories and hotels to collect data regarding foreigners who are working in Bangladesh for six months or more."
No accurate data
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has no accurate information on how many foreigners are working in the country's apparel industry.
According to a recent survey by the association, only 177 foreigners are working in the export-oriented apparel industry. However, the figure comes from only 52 out of 4,560 factories.
On April 29, the association issued a letter to its members asking them to provide information about their foreign workforce by May 10 this year, including their name, designation, age, job experience in foreign and Bangladeshi companies and monthly salaries.
Foreigners are working in the apparel industry mainly as merchandiser, technician, research and development, sample development, production level, quality control, maintenance, engineer and marketing.
Among them, around 48 percent comes from India, 25 percent comes from Sri Lanka, 13 percent comes from China, 8 percent comes from South Korea, 1.7 percent from turkey and 1 percent from Pakistan.
Sources involved with the industry said a foreigner working in a garment factory makes from $2,000 to $15,000 per month, depending on their skills and negotiation process.
Why foreign workers?
Managing Director of Ananta Apparel Ltd Sharif Zahir said, "We are producing some high-end products such as suit-blazers and lingerie. When setting up factories for such products, hiring foreigners is a must.
"Because, the local people do not have the know-how and the experience required for the production such items."
He further said, "For example, the chief operating officer position requires experience of at least 20 years. If a local employee manages to gain such level of experience, he/she prefers to turn into an entrepreneur instead of working in someone else's factory.
"We actually prefer local employees if they have the required experience, as it is easier to communicate with them. So, we appointed around 25 foreigners, as we have no alternative. We employ Around 28,000 local employees and staff."
He said the foreign workers of his company are drawing salaries up to Tk 3 lakh each every month.
On condition of anonymity, country head of an international apparel fashion brand said, "Foreigners mainly work in the merchandising sector in the country. Most employers prefer foreign staff believing they have a lower chance of getting involved in corruption.
"Most owners also lack sufficient understanding of the merchandising sector."
The brand representative suggested that if factory owners had appointed qualified foreigners in product development and efficiency development sectors, the production would become more efficient.