By BEGENA P PRADEEP
NEW labour laws are driving up the cost of employment visas sold on the black market, the GDN has learned.
Expats desperate to find work in the Gulf are reportedly paying up to BD2,000 for visas, compared to BD1,000 a few years ago.
Rogue “employers” have been selling visas to expat workers for years so they can enter the country, but then find work with other companies illegally.
However, they are now charging around double the old amount and blaming the increase on tougher labour legislation and the introduction of the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA).
It means the illegal trade in employment visas is booming, despite government efforts to legalise the country’s workforce and warnings that people caught working here illegally will be prosecuted.
Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers have told the GDN they used to pay BD1,000 to BD1,200 for visas to get here, but are now being quoted BD1,800 to BD2,000.
One expatriate Asian worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had been living in Bahrain for nearly 16 years and survived by doing odd jobs.
He used to “buy” his two-year visa for BD500 and more recently paid his “sponsor” BD1,200, but was then asked to fork out BD1,800 the last time his visa expired.
“I was planning to bring my nephew to Bahrain on a free visa, but my sponsor is saying that now I have to pay BD1,800 for him as well as for my visa renewal separately,” he told the GDN.
“I don’t think we’d be able to even recover this amount in two years, so what is the point?
“My sponsor says that the law is very strict now with the LMRA and even he will be in trouble if I am caught working illegally, so he has to charge more.”
The worker is one of thousands of foreigners who chose not to leave Bahrain during a six-month amnesty that ran from August 1 to the end of January.
The GDN reported last month that there were still more than 60,000 illegal workers in Bahrain, in addition to their families, who had not renewed work or residence visas.
They have until July 1 to register with the LMRA, which is taking over responsibility for issuing all work visas for foreign employees from the Labour Ministry.
It will also charge companies BD200 for each two-year work visa granted, as well as BD10 every month for each foreign worker they employ.
The authority has been set up as part a sweeping labour market reform programme that aims to streamline the country’s workforce, ensure that all those living in Bahrain are legal and encourage firms to employ more Bahrainis.
Eighty per cent of the levy on expat workers will be used by the LMRA to finance training of Bahrainis.
Migrant Worker’s Protection Society (MWPS) action committee head Marietta Dias said some expats were set to suffer huge losses.
“Working on a free visa was illegal even before the LMRA, but was overlooked then.
“But that’s not the case now. Offenders will be dealt with stricter than before and Bahraini sponsors will wash their hands off as usual.
“They (workers) are taking a great risk and no-one will be able to help them when they are caught.
“They will be deported and lose all the money they spent to get here.
LMRA public relations and e-services acting manager Waheed Al Balushi also warned expats against paying out massive amounts for visas to come to Bahrain.
“Bahrainis who try to cheat ignorant expatriates by selling visas and telling them it’s ok are very unlikely to succeed,” he said.
“The people who come here after paying such huge amounts should realise that there is no way they are going to earn enough to recover this amount.
“So if they cannot work here legally, they should just not invite trouble by coming here.”
However, he admitted the illegal market in work visas would be difficult to stamp out initially.
“Being realistic, the LMRA will not be able to wipe out the free visa market in the first few days, but will definitely make it difficult and then later on impossible, he said.
“A huge penalty will be levied on the illegal worker, employer and sponsor for being part of the free visa market.”
He said employers could previously secure an expat’s visa for around BD200, but with the arrival of the LMRA this would double to around BD440.
“One of the ways to eliminate the free visa market is to make it expensive and thus less attractive for a prospective free visa worker,” he said.
“Then the person will think twice before purchasing the visa and be an illegal because if he is caught, he has more to lose.”
Pakistan Embassy community welfare counsellor Habib Ur-Rehman Gilani also urged companies against relying on illegal workers.
“There is a huge demand for expatriate workers now and companies in need should not hire people not in their sponsorship,” he said.
“They should contact us because we know of many people who need to be legally transferred.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Embassy is being flooded with complaints from illegal expats who chose not to leave during the amnesty, but have now discovered they cannot afford the new rates for black market visas.
“We received at least 300 such workers at our embassy recently,” said first secretary Muhammad Ibrahim.
“The embassy is trying to help in any way we can by co-ordinating with the LMRA.
“These people have worked here long enough to have mastered various work skills that they can utilise back home and earn well.
“They would also have enough contacts here to arrange to return to Bahrain on a proper work visa. Workers will no longer be able to afford a free visa with the rising costs of living.”