DUBAI// Low-income Pakistani expatriates who regularly send remittance back home are likely to be the losers if foreign exchanges impose transfer fees in a dispute with the Pakistani government.
And the winners are likely to be illegal money-transfer networks.
Under the Pakistan Remittance Initiative (PRI), people who transfer more than US$100 are not charged by member exchanges, which in return receive a rebate from Pakistan. However, rebates running up to "millions of dirhams" have remained unpaid since August of 2011 and this has led to warnings from exchanges that charges will have to be imposed.
Customers have been told they are likely to be charged Dh15 per transfer from September.
"Most Pakistanis send money through remittance on a regular basis and these charges are likely to hurt lower-income people the hardest," said Mobisher Rabbani, a Pakistani who regularly remits money home to pay for the construction of a new house in the country.
He said the new charge would make little difference to him, but "the bigger impact will be on people sending smaller amounts on a monthly basis".
"For them, and that is the majority of people, a Dh15 charge would be significant."
The impending charge has been met with dismay.
"The system was working so well over the last few years," Jamal Malik, who lives in Deira and sends around US$500 every few months. "I can see a lot of people going back to the unofficial systems they used before."
Imran Masood, who sends around US$150 a month to his family in Lahore, said the impact would be serious.
"For me, every little bit I send is important," he said. "Some people say it's only Dh15, but over a year it adds up and is money that could have benefited my family."
For Naveed Iqbal, there was frustration at Pakistan's government.
"The government of Pakistan needs to sort this problem out as soon as possible.
"I think it will really discourage many people from sending back remittances through legal means."
The PRI was introduced by the government of Pakistan in the mid-1980s to encourage remittances through legitimate channels and cut down on unofficial transfers.
Remittances by Pakistani expatriates in the UAE are expected to hit US$4 billion this year.
"This will have a massive impact on the amount Pakistani expatriates are willing to send back in remittances," said Syed Faraz Ahmed, an executive director at Multinet Trust Exchange in Dubai. "This system has worked well in the past and substantially squashed the practice of sending money back through illegal channels like hundi and hawala but people might be tempted back to that."
Mohammed Ali Al Ansari, managing director of Al Ansari Exchange, likewise said the Pakistani government "will probably miss out on foreign cash flow as more and more people will start to use unofficial remittance services. "In the long run that will impact more on Pakistan itself."
Remittances from UAE through official channels were estimated to be around US$3 billion in 2011, said Leena Wilson, administrative manager at the Foreign Exchange and Remittance Group (Ferg).
The group is made up of foreign exchange companies of all sizes based in the UAE.
Ferg took up the matter on behalf of its members with the State Bank of Pakistan and via the Pakistan Embassy in Abu Dhabi, said Ms Wilson.
"Some small amounts were received in small batches, but there is still a large backlog since last August worth millions of dirhams," said Ms Wilson.
Sobia Rahman, vice president for the Gulf, Pakistan and Afghanistan for Western Union, said its customers would be unaffected as it was not part of PRI.
Jamil Ahmed Khan, Pakistan's Ambassador to the UAE, said: "The dues of the last several years have been cleared as of August last year and we are hopeful that the outstanding amounts will be cleared in due course."