The Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (Bida) has come up with a set of recommendations like mandating foreign worker hiring ratio at every tier of job, particularly at mid-level management, in different sectors to offer more job opportunities to the country's own pool of skilled workforce.
As per the existing guidelines, for every foreign worker hired, a business entity must employ five locals.
But capitalising on no instructions on conforming to the ratio at every level, multinational companies mainly recruit foreign nationals for mid-level management jobs, leaving many local deserving candidates out of luck.
They now maintain the ratio in hiring only at low-level jobs.
When it comes to employing workers in the manufacturing sector, an ongoing industrial project needs to have 10 local workers for every foreign worker hired. The permissible cap goes down to 20:1 when the new facility goes into production.
The permissible percentage of foreigners for educational institutions is a little over 9% of total employees and they also will have to comply with such a limit in hiring at every level.
Bida in its draft proposal suggests that the government amend the existing guidelines for foreign worker recruitment with a view to making it mandatory for all employers that they abide by the hiring ratio at all job level. The draft proposal will be presented to the Prime Minister's Office next month.
Local entrepreneurs say if the proposed amendment secures approval, local skilled people will get more opportunities at management levels. This will also allow the government to control the number of foreign workers to a permissible limit.
At the same time, it will be possible to stop the huge amount of money going abroad legally and illegally through the recruitment of foreign nationals, they add.
Ariful Haque, director of Bida, told The Business Standard, "We prepared the proposal to increase job opportunities for Bangladeshi workers at the top level of different companies."
However, representatives of foreign investors think such a proposal might send a wrong message to foreign investors abroad.
Rupali Haque Chowdhury, president of the Foreign Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said, "Imposing more restrictions on the recruitment of foreign nationals would send the wrong message to foreign investors and increase the burden on compliant companies. If there are any irregularities, actions should be taken according to the law."
"We lack skilled and qualified manpower in many fields. If foreign experts do not come there, the sectors will not develop. We should see what other countries are doing," she said.
Bida in its draft proposal also suggests penalising and even blacklisting foreigners for staying in Bangladesh without a work permit.
Besides, the investment authority recommends changing the procedure of permitting the setting up of branches, liaison or representative offices, and project offices of foreign companies.
The procedure for granting work permits to foreign nationals will be amended too, according to the proposal.
Bida has already sent letters to ministries and divisions concerned, and business associations, seeking their opinions on the draft proposal.
Besides, Bida proposed some amendments to ensure transparency in expenses of companies while paying foreign workers.
According to the proposal, no salary allowance or benefit can be taken outside the country without Bida's permission. If a foreign worker leaves the country without paying income tax, their employers will have to pay that.
In Bangladesh, a significant number of foreigners work in local offices of various buying houses in the readymade garment sector.
Kazi Iftequer Hossain, president of Bangladesh Garment Buying House Association (BGBA), said, "Foreign nationals only can be recruited in job levels where there are shortages of manpower with technical knowledge."
"Bangladeshi manpower is now sufficiently qualified to cater to the demand of the apparel sector and buying houses. There is no need to recruit foreign nationals in these sectors anymore," he added.
The BGBA president said over 1,000 foreign nationals are currently working in 300 out of 1,800 buying houses under his organisation.
Officials of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) said they will send their opinion on Bida's draft proposal this week.
BKMEA director Fazlee Shamim Ehsan told TBS, "Some projects like Padma Bridge, Rooppur Nuclear Power plant require hiring of foreigners with technical knowledge. Apart from this, our own workforce is good enough for almost all jobs in other sectors, including RMG and textile industries."
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of Policy Research Institute, said, "We have to bring in foreigners if we do not have expert manpower. But it will not be wise to impose more restrictions on foreign workers."
Bida's proposal also mentions that the regulations can be relaxed if necessary.
According to Bida, in sectors where there are Bangladeshi skilled workers, priority should be given to them. In addition, even if foreign workers are hired, they will have to submit a proper action plan to the government to transfer their specialised technical knowledge to local workers within five years. If the action plan is not implemented, the work permit of the foreign employees will not be extended.
The contribution of a foreign worker in enhancing skills of his subordinates will be taken into account while considering the extension of their work permit, the Bida proposal reads.
The draft proposal also aims to prevent foreigners from coming to the country on tourist visas and working illegally. People with such visas will not be allowed to work in the country and multiple trips for them will be discouraged. If an employer breaks these rules, the government will take actions against them.
No specific data on foreign workers
There is no specific data on the number of foreign workers in Bangladesh, but people concerned say the number will be several lakhs.
According to the home ministry, the number is 86,000 and most of them are Indians. As per Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), the figure is at least 2.5 lakh, of them, only 90,000 are legal workers.
The National Board of Revenue in 2020 disclosed that more than 14,000 foreign nationals have submitted income tax returns, meaning that all of them have work permits.
The National Skill Development Authority, an institute under the office of the prime minister, revealed at a workshop in 2019 that foreign nationals working in Bangladesh remit about $6 billion every year to their countries.
A report, published by the Centre for Policy Dialogue in 2015, said Bangladesh has become the third-largest remittance source of India, as Indian nationals sent home around $3.7 billion in 2013.
According to TIB, foreigners working in Bangladesh are illegally sending around $3 billion to their countries a year.
Foreign nationals are working in 32 sectors, including garment industries and buying companies, merchandising companies, NGOs, information and communication technology (ICT) sector, education, engineering institutes, consulting firms, multinational companies, private power plants, international contractors, hotel-restaurants, mobile phone companies, oil and gas companies among others. They usually are involved in mid-level management and higher positions.
According to people concerned, there is a lack of coordination between the organisations responsible for overseeing the employment of foreign nationals in the country.
They say there is no specific policy in this regard.
In 2016, the NBR formed a taskforce to gather detailed information on the number of foreign nationals, their income, income tax and their employers. But, that initiative has now been stalled due to a lack of coordination.
The NBR has a provision to impose a 50% penalty on the income tax of an organisation if it employs foreign nationals without a work permit. But there is no information about any organisation being fined under this provision.
According to the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce & Industry, around 2.2 million people enter the job market in the country every year but a large part of them do not get any job.
As per the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) study, the educated unemployment rate in the country was 33.32% in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic, which started last year, has made the situation worse.
Industry insiders say Bangladeshi workers have not yet become a substitute for foreigners in some jobs as they lack information technology and technical knowledge and foreigners are taking advantage of this.
More than 40 foreigners are working in Sparrow Group, one of the largest readymade garment exporters in the country.
Shovon Islam, managing director of the company, told TBS, "Bangladeshi workers are still lagging behind in tasks such as merchandising, marketing, price negotiation, different technical works and product design. That is why foreigners have to be recruited. But local people are gradually becoming more efficient."