All the numbers that the latest study report of the Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) mentioned about foreign nationals working in Bangladesh, legally or illegally, are worrying. The presence of so many workers -- about 250,000 -- coming from 44 countries, as mentioned in the report, is enough to evoke surprise. Yet the TIB executive director finds the number a conservative one. That these workers have been remitting an estimated $3.1 billion through illegal routes every year -- the legal remittance is only $46 million -- is yet another disturbing piece of information. More importantly, the foreign workers, reportedly, have been evading taxes worth Tk 120 billion a year.
However, it is important to note here that the TIB's report on foreign workers is not based on any survey. Rather, it has been prepared on the basis of analysis of information collected from various sources, including government and autonomous bodies, research organisations and media reports. The fact remains that no authentic information about the actual number of foreign workers, their income, remittance and tax evasion is available with any of the relevant organisations.
Even the data available with government agencies on foreign workers vary widely. The number of foreign workers who received permission from the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) to work here is too small compared to data available with the Home Ministry on foreign workers. The private entities that employ the foreign workers hide the actual numbers, thus, help the latter to evade tax payment. What is more disturbing is that the foreign nationals traveling with tourist visas enter Bangladesh and get themselves employed in various firms. They go back home on expiry of visas, procure visas afresh, return to Bangladesh and join the workplace again.
The issues involving the number of illegal foreign workers and the amount of money they remit every year did hit the news headlines many a times in the past. But the relevant authorities have not done anything substantive to address those. There is no guarantee that they, this time too, would try to know the actual situation on the ground and do the needful.
Undeniably, there exists a gap between the demand for, and supply of, certain skilled hands in the country's manufacturing and services sectors. The foreign workers have been filling up that gap. None has reasons to raise questions about this obvious development. But what is worrying is that the number of illegal workers than that of legal ones are being attracted to these jobs. Bangladeshi workers in their hundreds are being deported or forcibly sent home from Malaysia and a number of countries in the Middle East, allegedly, for not having valid work permits. Should Bangladesh allow illegal foreign workers on its soil and offer them the opportunity to earn tax-free wages?
It is also disheartening to note that a number of employers do help their legal foreign employees evade tax payments in right amount. The TIB report has revealed the mechanism that the employers have been employing to help the tax evasion. It is the job of the tax authorities to plug the leakage. But all other responsibilities in relation to recruitment, issuance of work permits and maintenance of all necessary information about foreign workers need to be given to a one particular government agency. This arrangement is essential to ensure discipline in the recruitment of foreigners and stop unauthorised transfer of resources abroad.
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