‘Free Visa’: Challenges and opportunities in Middle East

MS Siddiqui | Published: October 17, 2018 21:33:24 | Updated: October 18, 2018 21:25:49

Photo: Reuters

The Middle East (ME) countries have channelised the recruitment of migrant workers meant both for government and private employment through kafala (sponsorship) system. Under this scheme, the original employers request kafeel (sponsor) to obtain government permission for appointment of overseas employees, and the kafeel completes all formalities regarding prior permission and arranging recruitment through the manpower companies of the sourcing countries. They also sponsor the migrant workers and arrange visa and other procedures to bring the migrants to ME countries.

The kafeel's name is typically written on the migrant worker's entry visa as well as in the residence and work permits. On arrival in the host country, the kafeel takes possession of the migrants' passports as security. Migrants' interaction with government in each and every step can be done only through the kafeel. In practice, migrants are put under supervision of both the employers and the kafeel for recruitment or employment, travelling to host country etc.

Migrants usually go to host country under employment visa. The kafeel and the employer may let the migrants work for others. This has been named 'free visa'. In a free visa system, the kafeel and the employer allow the migrant to work for other employer instead of any particular employer for whom he actually went to the host country. This sort of migration is called trading of visa or free visa, which is not covered by law. Besides, this free visa is neither free nor legal, and it gives rise to significant vulnerabilities for transnational migrants who work under such arrangement.

Some ME countries are used to issuing block visas for the recruitment of overseas employees and these visas feature some extra seal of approval. Recruiting companies from those countries are used to selling these unused visas to other private individuals and companies who are unable to secure visas for their employment needs. This free visa system is considered as a source for some employers who are not willing to take trouble for obtaining permission from their government to take home overseas employees.

The use of free visa is thought to give migrants some flexible options to negotiate the terms and conditions of their job on the spot. Such visa is popular among some skilled and experienced workers in local job environment. Although free visa is not a valid process, but is favoured by all concerned. The UAE reportedly has a way out to bypass official procedures through the "issuance of a free visa," which requires a security deposit of $1,500. The visa is valid for two years and has no minimum salary limit.

Free visa has a number of challenges though, as migrant workers are often exposed to a high level of vulnerability. They become irregular when they start working for someone else other than the original employers. Their employment becomes vulnerable and they are used to facing many troubles, if any employer - irrespective of original and secondary - become unhappy with them for any reason whatsoever.

The 'irregularity threat' forces many migrant workers to endure difficult and exploitative conditions due to the inherent deficiencies of kafala, and thus, effectively limit their mobility in the labour market. Once a worker falls into an irregular status due to working for other than the original employer, it may be difficult for him or her either to regularise the status without the kafeel's cooperation, or to legally leave the country. This may partly be as a result of the accumulation of large amount of 'overstay' fines. They are under the risk of deportation, getting penalised and jailed for violation of immigration rules. If  such workers are identified, they may be barred from leaving the country as a result of having insufficient funds to pay the fines.

The jobs mentioned in the work visa for converting into free visa is, in reality, a fiction. The sponsors are issuing the visas to the migrants with a plan to free the migrants for employment meant for others after arriving in the host ME country. A sponsor typically makes profit from initial sale of free visa, a transaction often facilitated by a transnational kafeel network and sourcing country's manpower exporter.

It has many limitations and hassles for low-paid workers. The kafeel also charge the 'free visa' holder a fixed amount or a monthly fee for serving as the worker's sponsor and also for potential renewal of the 'free visa' relationship on conclusion of the original contract period. At the same time, migrants have more challenges, but they often don't know the legal and administrative issues.

The sponsor and first employer may agree to release a migrant worker to serve another employer. But the second employer may pass over the renewal of the worker's residency and work permits. ME governments do not recognise the second employer as s/he does not appear on records as the sponsor.

Under an arrangement of 'free visa', migrant workers who have experience of running business in the ME may get employed against small wages and share a slice of profit from the employers' business (like working partner). There are two main sub-forms: (a) a sponsor brings a migrant worker to the country in order to operate and run commercial activity like a small grocery store. This establishes an unofficial agreement with migrant worker to operate the business in return for rent money; or (b) the migrant worker informally agrees to pay the sponsor rent money in exchange for maintaining his/her work permit and residence status and the worker too does some informal small business.

In both cases, the migrant worker depends on the sponsor for his continued legal residency status - making himself vulnerable to exploitation and debt bondage and thereby limiting his mobility. Sometimes, kafeels and their local agent-- manpower exporters of migrating country, don't disclose the nature of visa and work permit and migrants find them with 'free visa'. The kafeels and manpower exporters in exporting countries earn staggering amounts in this rent seeking business.

The ME have many free trade zones (FTZs) for investment by overseas entrepreneurs, although business permit is very much restricted beyond the FTZs. They allow only their own nationals for various trading and other small businesses. Some of the Bangladeshi entrepreneurs are doing businesses in non-FTZs in collaboration with the locals as unofficial working partners. They are salaried employees in documents, but working partners in practice. They also run the businesses at their own risk and pay fixed profit to local licence holders of the business establishments.

All these problems for migrant workers notwithstanding, some of the entrepreneurs are still reaping benefits from the free visa system as they get some freedom of choice from the employer/partner. Despite the fact that many drawbacks and risks are associated with the migrants in using free visa, it has opened a new era of investment opportunity in some ME countries. Interestingly, such investment is not permitted under the existing Foreign Exchange law of Bangladesh.

Free visa system should be brought under law to safeguard the rights of the expatriates. Bangladeshi migrants should be allowed to change the status of visa so that they can negotiate the terms of employment and also invest in other countries in a limited scale either from their own income or by way of taking some investment from Bangladesh. The legitimacy of their investment will increase the remittance inflow through the country's banking channel.

MS Siddiqui is a Legal Economist.


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