BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah made an unannounced visit to the labour and immigration departments on Monday to address what he called “shortcomings” in the trustworthiness and efficiency of the agencies.

Among the issues raised by the sultan was the case of a syndicate selling fake identification cards; foreigners working in the country illegally; and flaws in the approval process for the Foreign Workers License, which he said was ripe for abuse.

His Majesty outlined similar issues during a visit to both departments in October of last year.

Monarch questions whether officials colluded with fake ID syndicate

Three weeks ago, the Internal Security Department detained seven people who were allegedly part of a syndicate forging national identification cards and other government documents. 

The group had planned to use the fake ICs for fraudulent activities such as procuring bank loans, said ISD, and also planned to sell the ICs for $5,000 a piece.

“The question is how can these fake ICs be made without cooperation from specific parties?,” he said in a titah.

He warned that falsifying or forging government documents was a serious security breach that could not be taken lightly. 

“We cannot compromise at all because it is a heinous and shameful crime. It can even affect [our national] security,” he added.

The syndicate members are currently being held under the Internal Security Act, which allows the State to keep alleged offenders in detention for an indefinite period of time.

Reports of freelance agents receiving special treatment

His Majesty also cited reports of an “uncontrolled influx of foreign workers”, which he said could be attributed to government mismanagement in issuing the Foreign Workers License and employee visas.

“Why is this happening when the two departments of labor and immigration have the jurisdiction and powers to control it?,” he said.

“Improper handling here includes abuse of power in managing matters related to foreign workers, as well as the involvement of unregistered freelance [employment] agents.”

The sultan alleged that some freelance agents received preferential treatment when dealing with the labour and immigration authorities.

“A registered agent may have to wait two weeks to process passport applications, while it only takes two days for an unregistered freelance agent to do so. Because of this, freelance agents are preferred by foreign companies because they can go through the processes quickly.” 

His Majesty added: “If this is true, then this is an obvious abuse of power. There have been reports that such incidences have been reported to the Ministry [of Home Affairs] but the outcome is not clear.

“All matters related to foreign workers should be carried out by registered agents to avoid issues such as ‘fake’ visas. How can those fake visas be obtained if not with the cooperation of specific parties?” 

His Majesty inspects offices during an unscheduled visit to the Labour Department. Photo: Infofoto

The monarch also touched on the issue of foreign workers performing jobs outside the scope of their employment visa, such as fishmongers and produce vendors.

“What type of license do they have? Were they brought in as construction workers or domestic helpers and then asked by their employers to do a different job? This has been happening for a long time… but has it been addressed or is it still unresolved?”

Approval process for working visas still inefficient

The Foreign Workers License (LPA) was introduced in 2016 to expedite the approval process for migrant workers, but the system is still plagued with inefficiency four years after it was launched, the sultan said.

The workflow to get an LPA needs to go through 23 steps and involves more than 10 officers and staff.

“If this is the procedure in place, how would it not affect companies’ operations [negatively]? It is possible that there are companies willing to take the easy way out by offering bribes.”

The LPA is supposed to take seven days, as opposed to 41 days under the previous system.

“The ability of the Labour Department to meet that timeframe has not been realised,” His Majesty added.