The allegations that a segment of customs officials hassle businesses by demanding bribes, also known as speed money, has been around for decades. However, businesses are claiming the speed money rate has now gone up, with some customs officials citing inflation as the reason.
Industry insiders say such a malpractice is severely disrupting commercial activity in the country, at a time when the government’s focus is on improving business atmosphere in Bangladesh amid economic headwinds.
The malpractice of taking speed money is also causing the government to lose revenue, while the country is being deprived of the opportunity to earn billions of USD, and foreign direct investments (FDI).
A number of industrialists claimed that a section of customs officials and other government officials involved in the industries sector are harassing businesses unless they pay speed money. Feeling helpless, many are choosing not to remain silent on this matter any longer.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) President Faruque Hassan drew attention to the issue involving corrupt customs officials in presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during the Made in Bangladesh Week inaugurate ceremony last year.
Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF) Director Fazlee Shamim Ehsan recently wrote on the social media platform Facebook, “If you ask someone who is taking services from the National Board of Revenue (NBR), they can state the difference in bribe rates between now and three years ago.
“But still they [NBR authority] claim that they are honest.”
Commenting on the allegations of increased customs harassment, Ehsan told The Business Post, “Almost all of our members claim that they must pay speed money to the customs officials while receiving goods and shipments.
“In recent times, they have increased the bribe amount by three to four times. Businesses say that there is no chance of negotiation on the matter. Even after taking bribes, some officials delay the clearance of our goods.”
Ehsan, also the vice president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), said, “This malpractice is one of the key barriers to improving the ease of doing business.
“The prime minister has asked to remove all kinds of non-tariff barriers, then why are the customs and other government officials harassing us? If we inform the authorities on the issue, they ask for documents. But this matter is an open secret.”
Businesses claim that there are different bribe rates based on types of goods, locations, exports and imports. Though a large number of customs officials are honest, they are also being forced to take speed money due to pressure from dishonest officials.
They added that sometimes law enforcement agencies catch a few corrupt officials, take legal action, and the authorities form probe committees. But most of the probe reports never see the light of day, and such officers again get involved with the bribery racket with impunity.
A businessman, involved with the export-import trade, said on condition of anonymity, “Customs officials use inspection as their main weapon. They seize a consignment citing that an inspection is due.
“We know that the process will take at least a week, and sometimes even up to 40 days. That is why we try to negotiate with them by offering to pay speed money. Besides, there are fixed rates, such as Tk 4,000 for per consignment export, though it was Tk 1,500 just a year ago. The minimum rate in case of inspection is Tk 40,000.”
Echoing the same, another exporter said, “Sometimes, we make mistakes such as a mismatch in HS Code or weight. In such cases, customs officials take Tk 10,000 to Tk 10,00,000 in bribes based on the goods quantity.
“The highest amount was Tk 4 lakh – Tk 5 lakh a couple of years ago. I have to pay at least Tk 50 lakh annually to customs officers as speed money. Due to their harassment, I also lose business worth Tk 2 crore per year.”
When questioned where he pays the bribes, the businessman said, “I have to pay speed money to the Customs Bond Commissionerate office, and officials of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE).”
Meanwhile, pointing out that some businesses are actually involved in illegal acts, BGMEA President Faruque Hassan said, “I too want punishment for unlawful traders, but they always manage to get out of trouble. The ordinary businesses however are always facing harassment.
“Bangladesh is losing business opportunities worth billions of USD annually due to the customs harassment.”
He added, “Fashion business is fast paced, and we have to deliver the goods on a strict schedule. But if the customs takes up to 45 days from our already tight lead time, how will we export the goods on time?
“The government is losing crores of taka annually as the customs officials are taking bribes instead of fining rule violators.”
The Business Post tried to reach out to NBR Chairman Abu Hena Md Rahmatul Muneem and Member of Customs (Policy) Masud Sadiq for comments on the matter, but they did not respond to phone calls and messages till the filing of this report.