Migrants in United Arab Emirates Get Stuck in Web of Debt


By Jason DeParle – nytimes.com
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 of them — and like thousands of other foreign workers here, a trip to debtors’ prison.

“When they put me in shackles, that was the worst,” said Ms. Naces, who had $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 here 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.

Whether cast as reckless lending or heedless borrowing, their stories offer an unusual glimpse of the hidden emotions — webs of pride, guilt and family obligation — that follow millions of migrants across the globe.


The Philippine Embassy held a financial literacy program in June. Some workers borrowed at rates of 50 percent or more.

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 United Arab Emirates, 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 Ms. 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 worshipers after Mass at a Filipino church.

Ms. 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, and local officials keep watch for signs of discontent.

“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.

“What do we want? Freedom!” Ms. Princesa, the ambassador, chanted at a session for Filipinos. “Freedom from poverty! Freedom from credit card problems! Freedom from bank problems!”

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.

FULL STORY

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