Stakeholders have long been complaining about rising anomalies in the foreign labour sector and questioning the ability of the Department of Foreign Employment to carry out inspections properly. Similarly, DoFE is also facing criticism regarding its initiative to merge manpower agencies. Against this backdrop, Umesh Poudel of The Himalayan Times caught up with Bhishma Kumar Bhusal, director general of the department, to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the sector. Excerpts:
What is the current status of DoFE and how do you plan to regulate the foreign employment sector?
At present we have accelerated the works of surprise monitoring and raids on manpower firms that are allegedly engaging in illegal works. As per data maintained by DoFE, the department carried out monitoring of only 13 agencies in the first nine months of last fiscal year. After my appointment in May, we investigated 26 manpower firms within three months, that is, till July 17. Then from July 18 till date, we have monitored and cross-checked nine manpower companies and also taken action against the firms that were conducting illegal activities. In this fiscal, we plan to increase awareness programmes targeting manpower firms, general public and concerned authorities to minimise wrongdoings in the entire foreign employment sector.
What are the visible changes that you have introduced since your appointment in the department?
In view of the challenges that the service seekers were facing earlier, we have made the process of addressing the grievances more systematic. We have opened more than 850 files — related to fraud, visa/work permits, guaranteed employment/ income scam and payment, among others — that had been pending since 2005. We suspect that the scammers have been engaged in similar cases earlier also. Therefore, we have simultaneously opened new and old files. Earlier, whenever someone filed a complaint against a manpower firm or agent, the department used to call both parties. But in doing so, there were high chances of the victims being further harassed by the perpetrators, who are often quite powerful. Now, we are handling all the cases as per the Foreign Employment Act, which ensures that the victims are protected and receive their due compensation. For example, we were able to collect fines worth Rs eight million from the wrongdoers in a matter of just last one month, which is the same amount of fine collected over the 11 months of last fiscal year. We have also ensured that government officials are disciplined and follow the code of conduct. Thus, the chances of corruption within the department is almost nil now. While we are trying to enforce the same in other agencies under DoFE as well, it will likely take some time before we are successful. Moreover, we are using information technology to disseminate information and simplify the whole process of foreign employment. For example, we have updated the details of all operational recruiting agencies and upgraded the DoFE portal. We plan to integrate the data of migrant workers with the Department of Immigration for data verification. We will soon introduce an online system for insurance payment, service charge and welfare fund, among others. We have also finalised the working procedure, method and format of payment. Similarly, we are working on making it possible for Nepali migrants to renew their visa through our diplomatic missions too. As any change initiated by an individual tends to be temporary, I am trying to change the entire system so that the positive changes initiated during my tenure last for long after I am gone.
Service seekers have often complained that they are unable to get any work done without seeking help from middlemen. Is this true?
I don’t want to speak on behalf of those before me. But since I have been appointed in the department, we have discouraged anyone other than the service seekers and manpower agencies from entering the premises. In fact, we have been taking action against anyone who seeks the support of middlemen or brokers to get their work done at DoFE. We have also forwarded letters to all district administration offices across the country for coordination and eliminating middlemen from the system. Still, it has been reported that middlemen continue to be active from while obtaining passports to Nepalis reaching their destination country and even in remitting their salary back home. We are now focused on destroying such fraud network and gradually applying the rule of law in our sector.
Though DoFE has formulated a working procedure for carrying out raids on manpower firms and has started cracking down on recruitment agencies, the raids seem limited to only small manpower agencies. Why?
I have vowed to take strict action against anyone engaged in illegal activities in the sector. Our actions are based on the complaints we receive and we are not aware of the size of the firm when we are raiding it — not that it would matter. The reason we have not cracked down on a large recruitment agency till date is because nobody has filed an evidence-based complaint against them till date. We have raided more than 50 manpower firms in the last four months based on the complaints made in the department. I would like to assure that the department will take stringent action against anyone — whether an individual or a company — that engages in illegal activities. This applies to the officials within the department as well.
Recently, the department also raided one education consultancy. But did it fall under your jurisdiction?
If a firm registered as a consultancy is operating as a recruiting firm, DoFE is bound to take action against it. We have heard that many education consultancies have been carrying out such illegal activities. We will take immediate action against such ‘consultancies’ if a victim presents even a tiny evidence that they are working as a recruitment agency. While we will independently carry out the raid, we do coordinate with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology for further processes.
It’s been a while that the government introduced a provision that encourages merger between manpower agencies. What’s happening on that front?
Till date, 25 foreign employment firms have submitted the required cash deposit and bank guarantee. As per new law, manpower firms sending up to 3,000 workers per year must deposit Rs five million and submit Rs 15 million as bank guarantee. Likewise, manpower agencies sending between 3,000 and 5,000 workers must deposit Rs 10 million and submit Rs 30 million in bank guarantee. Those who supply over 5,000 workers per year must deposit Rs 20 million and provide a bank guarantee of Rs 40 million to start operation. The manpower agencies have until September 3 to comply. So, the remaining recruitment agencies can either go for merger to meet the given criteria or have their services halted for failing to meet the set criteria.
According to the Ministry of Finance, most of the recruitment agencies have been evading taxes. What is your take on this?
While the government has set the ceiling for service charge for job seekers at Rs 10,000 per person irrespective of the destination, foreign job aspirants actually wind up paying much more to the manpower agencies, brokers and middlemen. Because of the powerful network of the errant recruitment firms and agents, it has become challenging to ensure that justice is served. Basically, they charge the job seekers many times more than the determined Rs 10,000, but provide the applicant with a bill of only Rs 10,000. In doing so, the rest of the money is out of the tax system, while the job seeker is also only able to present the evidence of having paid Rs 10,000. We are trying to initiate some preventive measures, including introducing penal codes and awareness programmes. Moreover, Department of Money Laundering Investigation has also started scanning manpower agencies engaging in suspicious activities. Despite all these efforts, if things do not improve, we will come up with a coordinated action with our line ministry, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Home Affairs against such errant companies and individuals.
A version of this article appears in print on August 20, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.