TLScontact Tunisie, a private company based in the capital and a member of the Teleperformance Group - a multinational telecommunications company - collects visa applications for several countries, including France, Belgium and Germany. The agency schedules appointments, collects files, takes fingerprints, then collects cash from applicants for their service as well as the visa fees.
Throughout his two years at TLScontact, Wael has worked in every department. "I started out as a multi-skilled agent, at the very bottom of the ladder," Wael recalled. At the reception desk, he collected visa application files. In the documentation department, he took applicants' fingerprints. In the back office, he redistributed passports to the impatient customers who were eager to see - or not - the visa stamp.
Handling the files has helped Wael understand the French Consulate's decision-making processes.
"I've warned so many people not to apply for the visa. It's useless. Some people just don't believe you. And then they end up getting rejected. [...] I do it out of compassion because it's very expensive for Tunisians," sighed Wael.
He can still remember the applicants’ nervous looks as they approached his counter, watching him mechanically pass the Consulate's instruction sheet through the plexiglass window. Wael knows that most of them wouldn’t dare complain about the current system, the costly and endless procedures, for fear that it might adversely influence their visa applications.
But Wael's role at TLScontact is purely administrative: the private company has no say in the selection of consular representation. In Tunisia, service providers such as TLScontact, VFSGlobal, BLS, and Almaviva are implementing the political decisions of foreign states, adding yet another hurdle for applicants and reinforcing external borders at the very heart of the country.
Keeping Apart with TLS
Dalia* used to handle over a hundred applications a day at TLScontact. As a consultant from 2012 to 2016, she can recall how helpless she felt when faced with certain customers' applications. "I remember one gentleman crying at the check-out. His wife was in France and he had to sell his living room furniture to pay the visa fees. He was never accepted," recounted Dalia, nervously playing with her fingers.
Just like Wael, Dalia has gained a certain amount of experience: "having processed countless files, I can tell you who will be turned down and who won't."
The former employee believes that certain profiles are particularly disadvantaged. Widowed and retired women with adult children settled in France, for instance. "If the husband is alive, it's acceptable. But an elderly widow might be turned down, even with a sponsorship letter from her son residing in France, simply because no one is holding her back here [in Tunisia]", Dalia pointed out.
She recounted how she had to repeatedly check if her supervisor was watching her, before suggesting changes to her customers' application files. Dalia was only allowed to point to the list of documents issued by the Consulate, without providing any details regarding missing items.
"If an applicant asks you to put an empty bag in the file, you just do it. You accept the file as is," Dalia explains, "and we're not allowed to insist or suggest that they bring other documents. But we sometimes do, out of compassion."
Dalia tried to help applicants whenever she could, by explaining the importance of certain elements in the application. For instance, the amount of money to be spent during the stay is crucial: "Bringing a large amount of money can be grounds for refusal, because if you bring a lot of money and you've never had a visa before, it raises doubt about whether or not you'll return to Tunisia", she summed up. If you don't bring enough money, on the other hand, that means you can't afford to go to France. More often than not, however, Dalia has to simply accept the amount brought without comment.
Although TLScontact is supposed to act as a mere intermediary, the visa application process is by no means a neutral event for Federica Infantino, researcher on migration and border control practices at the Migration Policy Center in Florence. "It's a political process, involving the rulers and the governed. It's a moment when the governed can negotiate their positions, explain their case, and make contact with the state." However, these brief interactions are limited to TLScontact employees who are explicitly instructed not to provide any form of guidance or advice.
"The intermediary aspect is the actual problem," says the researcher.
Even if the refusal seems unfounded, most people don't dare complain: "They're afraid they'd get rejected again if they speak up," Dalia commented.
Shifting the blame
In Federica Infantino's opinion, this outsourcing also enables the authorities to shirk their responsibilities. "The fact of outsourcing the entire application procedure to an external service provider, in other words, handing it over to another organization, enables states (...) to deflect responsibility and avoid taking the blame if things go wrong", even though TLS has no decision-making power over the granting of visas. "These companies don't make decisions, nor do they want to," said the researcher.
"When the governed no longer get to meet the rulers, they are stripped of their power to challenge and negotiate their positions".
This is especially challenging for applicants, as visa refusal rates are constantly climbing and the number of reports about the complexity of the procedure keeps growing. Within a decade, the refusal rate has doubled. In 2022, despite the lower number of applications than in the pre-Covid period, refusal rates have reached an all-time high. By turning to a service provider, governments are "shirking [their] responsibility for implementing public policies", asserted Ms. Infantino.
Source : statistics.schengenvisainfo.com
France offers the possibility of contesting the refusal in a letter addressed to the Nantes Appeals Commission. Available statistics indicate that this commission only responds to 45% of applications and dismisses 98.6% of appeals. As a result, applicants no longer have direct access to foreign representation, and the submission of their files falls solely on their shoulders.
Enforcing the outsourcing process
Visas are a relatively new phenomenon. They were gradually introduced in the 20th century, as traveling between countries and border controls became commonplace. The Schengen visa was introduced in the 90s, allowing free movement within each member country of the Schengen area. Consulates and Embassies were therefore tasked with collecting visa applications.
"Consulates are frequently criticized for their slow processing of applicants, who often find themselves waiting in lines outside the premises and enduring long waits just to get a response," recounted Federica Infantino.
Several countries gradually started to sign contracts with service providers: France began outsourcing its visa services to TLScontact in China in the early 2000s. The company then entered into competition with VFSGlobal, the first company to specialize in visa management services.
"Visa outsourcing is a global phenomenon that extends far beyond the European Union. We're talking about a handful of companies with an extremely wide-ranging business. TLScontact and VFSglobal are the world leaders", explained the researcher.
This outsourcing system has become the standard practice in many European countries today. "The relationship between these companies and the state is contract-based," summarized Federica Infantino. States are aiming to diminish the role of Consulates in order to "cut costs and downsize staff, as they’re constantly under pressure to cut public expenditure."
A successful gamble, as acknowledged by authorities: a 2017 report by the French Court of Audit proudly highlights the development of "a new model of collaboration between the consular public service and private companies, operating within an economic framework that is more cost-effective for the state."
A missing legal framework
The Schengen visa outsourcing process was initiated without a suitable legal framework. The service fees charged by the companies arbitrarily inflated the visa costs, which were later "fixed at a certain amount by a European regulation," Federica Infantino explained. "Member States had to negotiate with the European Commission to establish a legal basis for using external service providers."
Introduced in 2009, the Visa Code was implemented to regulate the use of service providers. The additional costs associated with these private companies became an inherent component of the Schengen visa process. Applicants are the ones who bear the financial burden of outsourcing, as "governments do not directly pay the private company," according to Federica Infantino. Despite the payment exemptions and reductions provided for in Article 16*, most applicants are still required to make mandatory payments to the intermediary agency.
"The French state gains nothing from outsourcing; it's the company that reaps all the profits," adds the expert.
The visa code initially entitles applicants to bypass the service provider and apply directly to the Consulate. "In theory", says Federica Infantino, "but it's practically impossible". In addition to the excessively long waiting times for an appointment at the Consulate, the Visa Code was recently amended in 2020, making access to the consulate optional. Without this access, applicants are compelled to go through the service provider and consequently bear the service fees, while being deprived of direct interaction with the State.
"The actions of these private agencies are often depicted as neutral, with no impact on policy implementation. The policy discourse presents outsourcing as merely a substitute for the Consulate, where people would go to this private agency instead, and that's it. It makes no difference. But that’s not entirely accurate," stresses Federica Infantino.
Once visa applicants register on the TLS website, they become the target of the agency's products. For an additional 111 dinars on top of the application fee, TLS provides the Premium service, which includes access to a lounge and reduced waiting time. "You'll still have to wait!" Dalia chuckled, "but at least there's coffee and comfortable armchairs instead of regular chairs."
"A private company is by definition a profit-making organization. Its mission, its objective, isn’t making decisions about visas, but boosting profits," confirms Federica Infantino.
Although optional, the Premium service isn't always presented as such. Dalia stated that when she was working at TLS, employees were often pressured to promote the Premium service to applicants. A mistake on the form? A slight delay to an appointment? "Switch to Premium service", Dalia repeated.
As for the photos submitted with the visa application form, it's the same tactic. "We reject as many photos as possible so that we can sell them internally", recounted the ex-employee. At the end of the day, the advisors get sales bonuses to make ends meet. Until 2018 at least, the basic salary was around 650 dinars a month. All of this takes place in unbearable working conditions.
"It was the worst three years of my life," Dalia confessed, "it was a nightmare. There were days when I would be in tears begging to leave at 5 p.m. just so I could pick up my daughter from daycare. And they would always refuse."
In response to inkyfada's queries, TLScontact confirmed that it grants bonuses to company employees "based on the quality of service they deliver and the satisfaction of applicants during their visit to the center.”
"Just a hint of slave labor"
The French Consulate only allows a limited number of TLS appointments per day. Once the last customer has left, TLS employees retreat to the back room to resume their work. No matter how many applications have been submitted that day, they must all be filed and transferred to the Consulate by the end of the day or the following working day. "It's a 40-hour week contract, but we end up working a lot more than that. There were hundreds of unpaid overtime hours in a month," Dalia revealed.
According to Wael, his time at TLS had its good aspects: "We received meal vouchers. The insurance coverage was good," he said with a smile, "but there was just a hint of slave labor in the mix." Although his overall experience was "positive," the excessive workload became overwhelming, leading him to quit in 2017. "When there are 20 offices operating and 100 people waiting, you have to keep up the pace and handle everything quickly," he admitted.
In 2016, Dalia reached her breaking point with the overwhelming workload. Together with her colleagues, she decided to stand up for their rights as employees and form a union. "We had to either improve the situation or get fired," Dalia declared. The movement gained immediate traction within the TLScontact offices, and even Wael became a signatory. Unfortunately, Dalia's predictions were right, as TLScontact ultimately fired the founders of the movement, leading to its dissolution.
When contacted by inkyfada regarding its working conditions, TLScontact asserted that no complaints had been filed and stated that they fully abide by the Labour Code. The company's communications department further claimed that their employees are happy to be working for them.
Digitizing the visa application process?
"The digitalization of visa applications is another thing to watch out for in the future," warned Federica Infantino. According to a June 2023 press release, members of the Schengen area are edging closer to a digital future where the only interface for applicants would be their computer screens. The idea of fully digitizing visa procedures is intended to improve efficiency and "the Schengen area's security.”
According to the researcher, however, these approaches will only exacerbate the gap between citizens and foreign states: "We can draw parallels with the digitization of public policies. The interface is merely a computer with which you can't talk, chat or have any real interaction. We are increasingly becoming objects rather than subjects of policy," cautioned Ms. Infantino. It would create more distance for applicants.