Luring jobseekers to work independently and earn more abroad, brokers charge them high recruitment fees to have “free visas”.
But these visas don't offer them a better future by any means.
Take for example the case of Abul Kalam. The 44-year-old man from Cumilla's Barura had spent Tk 4.5 lakh to go to Qatar on a “free visa” on December 18 last year. He has recently returned home empty-handed.
“I lived in Doha for nearly eight months, but worked only for two and a half months. I was jobless for the rest of the period,” he told The Daily Star.
Kalam, father of three children, said he had earned QR 2,050 (Tk 46,000) as a day labourer in construction firms and he was left unpaid for more than a month.
He had to borrow Tk 20,000 to return home.
Now working as a carpenter, Kalam is struggling to bring up his family and finance his children's education.
“Like me, many other Bangladeshis have been facing a similar situation in Qatar,” he said.
The Gulf country now hosts around 400,000 Bangladeshis.
A Bangladeshi contractor in Qatar said thousands of Bangladeshis were supposed to be jobless because they went there on “free visas”. Many of them were returning home, a trend that mainly began since the imposition of a blockade by Saudi Arabia and its allies in June last year.
The Saudi-led blockade severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and banned Qatar airplanes and ships from entering their airspace and sea routes along with Saudi Arabia blocking the only land crossing.
According to media reports in Qatar, 418 companies shut down their operations, mostly in the construction sector, in January alone.
Qatar Airways has reported a loss of more than $69m amid the blockade, reported Al Jazeera on September 19.
The Bangladeshi contractor said small companies were set up just to do business over visa. These firms secure visas and sell those to brokers who resell those to jobseekers at a high price.
“For a Bangladeshi, a visa costs around QR 10,000 to 15,000, which is only around QR 2,000 for the citizens of other countries like the Nepal,” he told this correspondent.
He said people were frequently being defrauded this way.
Abdul Alim, owner of recruiting agency SA Trading, said many jobseekers start facing problems after their arrival at destination countries.
“A company knows that there are huge demands for visas. Although it needs 40 foreign workers, it can get approval of 100 visas. Once the 100 workers arrive in the country, the company can employ 40 of them and leave the rest to work for other companies on their own.”
The employer can make profits by selling the visas to the brokers as well as by getting yearly or monthly payments from the workers who are working for other companies. Though this is illegal, it has been going on in almost all the labour-hiring countries in the Middle East or Southeast Asia.
According to a research by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) last year, 51 percent Bangladeshi workers face fraudulence in some forms.
“Fraudulence related to free visas is a major issue,” said RMMRU Chair Prof Tasneem Siddiqui.
She wondered how such a huge number of Bangladeshis, over 5.5 lakh, migrated to Saudi Arabia last year amid strict enforcement of the policy for recruiting Saudi youths in various sectors. She suspected that a large number of Bangladeshis travelled on “free visas”.
She feared such an illegal practice might lead to deportation of migrants.
According to the Probashi Kallyan Desk at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, 64,000 Bangladeshi migrants have returned home since January this year. However, the number of how many of them were deported for having “free visas” was not registered separately.
An official at the Probashi Kallyan Desk said, “I had never seen before that workers holding valid visas are being deported. But for the last few months, I have noticed hundreds of workers returned home from Saudi Arabia and Qatar although they had visas.”
Bangladesh Ambassador to Riyadh Golam Moshi said it could be because the workers had been working at companies other than those hired them.
“The Saudi authorities are now more strictly enforcing immigration laws than they had been previously,” he told this newspaper recently.
Mohammad Harun-Al Rashid, a migrant rights activist in Malaysia, said his research in 2007-08 on labour recruitment in Malaysia found that a lot of companies were engaged in visa business.
“At that time, the Bangladesh high commission in Kuala Lumpur used to verify the visa approvals by the Malaysian home ministry. But it didn't help anyway,” he told The Daily Star.
It is basically the responsibility of the labour-recruiting countries to check if the companies that are applying for foreign workers actually have the demand. The companies that apply for workers beyond its requirement must be penalised, he added.
Bangladesh missions in all the labour-recruiting countries should also have a mechanism to rigorously monitor the companies to check such fraudulence, which is wreaking havoc on migrants in various countries, Harun-Al Rashid said.
SK Rafiqul Islam, additional director general (admin & training) at the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), said approval of applications for foreign workers by the recruiting countries and attestation by the Bangladesh missions means the jobs are valid.
Based on that, the BMET issues emigration clearance for jobseekers to fly, he said.
Asked how the Bangladesh missions check the genuineness of the jobs, Rafiqul said they check it online and also call the companies.
“It's not possible for the embassy officials to visit all the companies and see the workplaces,” he told The Daily Star.
Prof Tasneem said such an illegal practice in the name of “free visas” have been taking a heavy toll on a huge number of Bangladeshi migrants.
“A lot of jobseekers going abroad on free visas remain unemployed or face various forms of exploitations. Many of them return home or face deportation by law enforcers. Such workers are ultimately pushed into poverty,” she said.