Letters From Around the World
Views From Dubai:
The Brazer and The Brazen
Migrant Workers – Photograph by Sameer
This I have seen. This is true.
Martin is a brazer. He hails from Philippines. He brazes metal parts in a Dubai factory. He has worked there for ten years. Of late he is quieter than usual because he recently spent two months behind bars.
His crime: failure to pay a $1000 credit card loan in time. The events leading to incarceration all went with textbook precision. Martin missed his payments. The bank called in the law. The law took its course. The judge sentenced Martin to one month in prison.
But why two months in jail, then? The second month was, well, ‘the law’s delay’. He is out now and back on the job. He has sworn off credit cards and debts. When asked about this episode, he shrugs his shoulders. “I’ll just charge it to experience,” says he. Martin is forty-two years old. His wife works in a garment factory in Manila. They have five children. Last time he saw his family was at Christmas, in 2006. He plans to meet them at Christmas again, in 2010.
Samant is an Indian worker, also neck deep in debt from banks. He took a more desperate route. One fine night, he overdosed on some industrial cleanser. His roommate found him the next morning. He was moved to the hospital. Samant’s life was saved. But due to his attempted suicide, he was jailed for a few weeks. Then he was deported back to India. I hear he is working in Malaysia now and doing ‘quite all right.’
Elmer is a press operator. Also from the Philippines. He has worked in Dubai for nine years. Elmer’s credit card loan was about $1000. But with ‘bank charges’ and ‘interest’ it’s grown to $1500. He hasn’t paid the last six installments. His clock has started ticking. The bank has lodged a police complaint. The police have impounded his passport. He is facing jail time. He knows about Martin and his jail experiences. To raise the money he has one option. If he resigns his job, his gratuity benefit becomes due. He must exchange the ‘frying pan’ of jail, for the ‘fire’ of unemployment. He has made his choice. In two weeks he will return to Manila. He will be debt free but jobless. Elmer is forty-eight years old. He has a family of four. His wife has no job.
These people are not figments of my imagination. I have talked to Martin and Elmer. Although I have not met Samant, his story was told me by his close colleague. Only their names have been changed to protect their identities.
You can trace the beginning of these stories to the boom time: circa 2006 / 2007. Banks were flush with funds. Markets were invincible. Subprime was not even a whisper. Credit was free. Banks were throwing credit cards at all and sundry. No credit checks, no collateral, no hassles. Just a simple form to be signed. All and sundry signed up with eyes wide shut. The fine print was not even a phrase to them. Terms like ‘bank charges’ and ‘legal penalties’ still bewilder them. The banks did not bother to enlighten them. After all, they were doing these poor folk a service by giving them a credit line.
As for the ‘poor folk’ all they saw was the juicy carrot of a free credit card. These cash-strapped workmen, gladly signed up. The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather it became his story. Martin’s story. Elmer’s and Samant’s story. Victims in a world without villains.
These are but a few amongst thousands of such cases. Although official numbers are not available, it is believed that an alarming number of such credit defaulters are in the courts, or in jail, or otherwise caught in this debt trap in the United Arab Emirates. The term ‘credit squeeze’ means something quite different for the likes of Martin and Elmer. The ‘squeeze’ they feel is quite different from the elitist phrase coined so freely by journalists, economists and financiers.
Others like these three have used whatever means they can to escape the problem. Some have quietly slipped away to their home countries and simply not returned. Absconding while on leave. Some others, more desperate and more depressed, have thrown themselves in front of speeding cars to end their lives.
That’s the story of these down and out workmen – the brazers. But there is another class of people who are doing quite well. They are the whiz kids of finance, the CEOs of big banks and bigger financial institutions.
Photograph by Sameer
Vikram Pandit, for instance, born in India, Chief Executive of Citibank, a financial wizard who sees Asia as the market to fuel his company’s growth. Citibank made a whopping loss of over $25 billion last year. It had to be bailed out with $45 billion of US federal funds. Yet, as per records of a US congressional committee, in 2008, Pandit earned an $11 million in salary and stocks. Hundreds of other top executives at the bank also received million plus bonuses, which Pandit, as CEO, approved.
There are many such examples. Data published in the US shows that Merrill Lynch lost $27.6 billion in 2008 and paid 696 employees bonuses of at least one million dollars. Morgan Stanley earned a profit of just $1.7 billion, but set aside $4.5 billion for bonuses to over 500 employees.
While the world is still struggling with the fallout of the recession, these pundits of finance are busy handing out bonuses to themselves and their top employees.
If memory serves right, these are the very ones who heavily financed risky products like subprime loans and subprime credit cards. Nonetheless, their genius deserves to be commended. After all they profited not just from risk, they managed to carve out bonuses from the recession as well. All strictly within the letter of the law. While this behavior can be termed as brazen if not downright obscene, I must confess that I am equally impressed by their cool-headed creativity.
As Sherlock Holmes said of the arch criminal genius Professor Moriarty: “My horror at his crimes is lost in my admiration at his skill.”
But I have a word of advice for these brazen geniuses, whoever they are. Gentlemen, look at the Martins and Elmers of this world. You will find them everywhere. In the whites of Elmer’s tired eyes you’ll see what the credit crunch really looks like – up close and personal.
But the world, as we all know, is too self-absorbed to focus on issues of these small people. The world is moving on from the depths of the recession. The ‘green shoots’ of growth have pushed the human tragedy to the background. Markets are climbing. Risk appetite is returning. The game is on again. The recession will soon be just a bad dream.
The real tragedy in all this is that Martin and Elmer and thousands like them are destined to end up simply as a statistic of the credit crunch. Nameless numbers on a nameless list soon to be forgotten.
Photograph by Sameer
Vibhas Tattu hails from India and is a manufacturing engineer by profession. He has worked in India, USA and now in the United Arab Emirates. Vibhas is interested in Shakespeare, Indian music, poetry (English, Hindi and Marathi) and a new found love of writing.
Tattu has a bachelor’s degree in Production Engineering from the University of Bombay and Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a Fellow.
by Vibhas Tattu
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