Before she arrived in this mecca of migrant labor at age 48, Evelyn Naces, a Filipino nurse, had never owned a credit card. Soon she had 14 — and like thousands of other foreign workers here, a trip to debtors’ prison.
“When they put me in shackles, that was the worst,” said Naces, who had US$27,000 in unpaid bills, mostly from helping her grown son start a business back in the Philippines that later failed. “I felt so degraded.”
For years, banks all but threw credit cards at the foreigners who come in droves to work the malls and fill the office towers. The workers, many of them raised in poor countries and new to easy credit, spent beyond their means. Staggering losses followed, with jail terms common for those who could not pay.
Some shopped for pleasure, but many ran up bills by answering pleas from poor relatives for needs as varied as livestock and medical care. The ability to say “no” seldom felt like an option. Still others, feeling uprooted, built houses back home that they might never occupy. Some mothers who left their children behind tried to salve guilty feelings with expensive gifts.
“The family back home often thinks the migrant is earning a lot and raises its expectations,” said Grace Princesa, the Philippine ambassador to the UAE, who has made debt reduction a part of a government campaign to improve conditions for migrants. “The poor migrant goes deeper into debt just to answer. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Such was the case with Naces, now 52, a single mother who left her infant son with her parents and went to Saudi Arabia to make money to support him. By the time she arrived in the Emirates in 2007, he had already grown up without her.
Though she could not get a credit card in Saudi Arabia, in the Emirates she could scarcely avoid one. Salesmen stalked nurses outside hospitals and worshippers after Mass at a Filipino church.
Naces bought furniture, clothes and meals for herself, but her biggest expenses involved her son, whose affection she feared she had lost. She built him a house in the Philippines and bought five cars with credit cards so he could start a rental business. “I felt guilty for being away and not raising him,” she said. “I was trying to compensate.”
They both went to jail — he on drug charges and she for debt.
While the government does not disclose how many debtors have been jailed, a legislative body several years ago estimated that 10,000 of them were in the courts or prison. The Dubai police chief has complained that debtors needlessly clog the jails, and employers have warned the Ministry of Labor that debt problems distract employees. About 85 percent of the country’s population — and 99 percent of the private work force — consists of foreign workers.
“The employers were saying, ‘This is a priority to us,’” said Qassim Jamil, a senior official in the Labor Ministry.
The Central Bank tightened lending rules this year, and the Labor Ministry sponsored a financial literacy program for migrant leaders.
If migrants spent heavily, lenders encouraged them. Traditionally, credit card use was low (in part because of Islamic strictures against charging interest), but banks spotted a new market and moved aggressively.
With foreign banks like HSBC and Citigroup fighting locals for market share, the number of cards leapt to 4 million in 2008, a fivefold increase in five years, according to Lafferty Group, a London research firm. But the country lacks a reliable credit bureau, so lenders could not tell how many cards or how much debt borrowers carried.
Courted with gifts and teaser rates, few borrowers understood the costs. The average interest rate in the Emirates last year, at 36 percent, was more than twice the global average, and banks routinely add another 10 percent for disability and death insurance. With penalties, some workers borrowed at rates of 50 percent or more.
Anyone can be tempted by easy credit, but migrants raised in poverty can find the glittering malls here especially intoxicating.
“The first time I used my card, I felt amazed,” Naces said. “It’s a feeling of excitement, power — greatness even.”
Aisha Alambatang, 54, who served a month for one card in February, could be jailed again for others. A Filipino nurse with three grown children, Alambatang spent most of their childhood years abroad, supporting them from Saudi Arabia. When she arrived in the Emirates eight years ago, she got a raise and six credit cards.
She built houses for herself and her daughter and helped the children start several failed businesses. Then she paid for two to move to Abu Dhabi to job hunt.
Soon she had a monthly salary of US$2,200 and debt service of more than US$3,000. Her daughter was in court when Alambatang arrived. “When my daughter saw me with a chain on my foot, I felt like my heart was broken,” she said. Worried about returning to jail, Alambatang gets palpitations when she sees the police, and she sleeps with her daughter for comfort.
“I’m not in jail anymore, but here,” she said, hand over her heart, “I’m more in jail.”
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