THERE has been a flurry of announcements of late regarding the recruitment of foreign workers and much of it, in my opinion, is targeted at improving Brunei Darussalam’s ranking in the Ease of Doing Business, which has plummeted.
Some of them, in fact, cancel out against each other with the result that those who hire foreign workers to get their projects moving feel nothing has changed at all.
The Opinion page letter “We need foreigners but hire only deserving” last Wednesday sort of justified that Brunei Darussalam still needs foreigners if it has to grow to realise the Wawasan 2035 vision.
While the news about the levy on recruiting foreign workers from January 2016 came as a shocker, the introduction of the Special Permission Licence came as a surprise.
The levy will be imposed on wholesale and retail businesses, hotels and restaurants, ICT sector, transportation and support services. I don’t see construction in the list, which is a relief. Otherwise, the levy will hit contractors very hard.
With the tendering process coming down to a few hundred dollars difference to decide who wins it, the levy will hit the bottom line of those bidding for tenders.
Only companies that have very sound financial backing will win the race, while many fringe players will have to be happy with the crumbs.
It’s a question of how the hotel industry will cope when the levy comes into force in 12 months time.
With occupancy rate being a seasonal phenomenon, hotels in Brunei may feel the heat when the levy comes into force.
The statistics are definitely an eye opener – 141,852 employees in the country’s private sector and of that 92,007 are foreigners (around 65 per cent), while 40,620 (28.6 per cent) and 9,225 (6.5 per cent) are Brunei citizens and permanent residents.
The number of foreign workers in the private sector in the country is certainly high compared to the number of locals and permanent residents employed.
But what the relevant agency has to look into is whether any effort was made at all by the private sector firms to employ locals. There has to be a mechanism to check whether companies did try to employ locals, failing which they had to look outside the country to fill up the posts.
The latest Special Permission Licence, which will help businesses hire foreign workers in over a week’s time, is applicable to establishments that include restaurants, tuckshops, supermarkets and department stores, textiles and garment shops within specified zones.
While a levy will be imposed to bring foreign workers in some of these categories (at a later date), the process to bring them in has also been hastened. I feel many might choose the latter depending on how stiff the levy is, which may not serve the purpose.
If there is one issue the whole country is in unison, then it has to be standardising fees and procedures of employment agencies.
Bringing in price ceiling rules and enforcing them are paramount to check the different fees different agencies charge their customers.
The steep fees the agencies charge to bring in domestic helpers (amahs) should also be looked into, while the employers need to be safeguarded too against amahs who disappear within a year of coming to Brunei.
How about freelancing maids? Does the Labour Department allow maids to do freelance work? If so, what are the rules? The department can’t be oblivious of the fact that there are many freelancers in the country sponsored by locals for a fee.
There are many loose ends that need to be tightened. The other big challenge is changing the local mindset. I have read about this in every labour-related story published in the media. Does it take so long to change their mindset?
– To levy or not to levy