For each of the past five years at Ramadan, Mushahid Alam Khan and his three brothers have pooled their savings and sent the same amount of money to their family in Pakistan. This year, though, scraping together the 60,000 Pakistani rupees (Dh2,700) was harder than ever.
"Of course we make compromises here," said Mr Khan, a driver in Abu Dhabi. "But their life is hard, too, so we all make sacrifices together to make sure our family is taken care of first. "Sometime I earn less, sometimes one of the others will earn less. But we manage to even it out. "We are always careful to put away some money, so we can send a good amount home together." Like Mr Khan and his brothers, thousands of expatriate workers struggled this year to send money home during Ramadan, sacrificing essentials such as food, or even borrowing money to ensure their families had extra cash for Eid.
Most workers from the subcontinent send home a modest amount every month and more during the holidays. But as the global recession has brought cuts in salaries and overtime pay, many have found it harder to send the same amount as in previous years. Some workers sacrificed a meal a day to have enough money to send to their families for Eid, said Mr KV Shamsudheen, the chairman of the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, an organisation that advises expatriates on how to manage money.Samir Khosla, the vice-chairman of Dynamic Staffing Services, a Dubai-based recruitment company, said workers who had had their hours cut faced the biggest challenge.
"Those who are not working regular hours and are sitting in their camps they either have sporadic work and then get benched again, or they are not working at all," he said. "They have severe challenges sending money back home during Eid, especially with so many families looking to their migrant workers for money. "Their expenses within the UAE have gone up as well. For example, their company may have stopped providing them with food so they suddenly have to absorb the cost of buying their own food."
Some workers have borrowed from unauthorised lenders or taken out loans on their credit cards to have money to send home. "This leads to a debt trap, because they don't stop to think that if they don't have money they should not send any home," Mr Shamsudheen said. "That will never happen. Somehow they will get and send that money." Mr Khosla said "grey market" borrowing was a problem among workers.
"They are susceptible to obvious risks, such as being obliged to pay a large amount of interest and in the long term facing more debt than they are in now," he said. "But workers will likely lean towards such borrowing to send money to their families." Money transfer companies normally see an increase in business when Ramadan starts, but it has not been as noticeable this year, according to Sudhir Shetty, chief operating officer of UAE Exchange.
The company saw "phenomenal growth" from 2006 to 2008 because of the construction boom, but the numbers have dropped because "not a huge batch of workers are coming into the country", Mr Shetty said. "It is not as huge as the previous year, but it is still positive. "They send money much in advance so their relatives can shop and prepare for Eid. There is also a last-minute rush to meet the demands of the occasion itself."
The average amount sent home is Dh400-500, Mr Shetty said. Some people send larger amounts during this period to help with celebrations or to invest in stocks, mutual funds or savings accounts. Some workers also send money home for Zakat, or charity. Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, obliges Muslims to give a portion of their income to charity or to those less fortunate than themselves. Mohammed Shafi, a driver with a car rental company in Dubai, sent home 40,000 Indian rupees to Kerala this month. With the extra money, he hopes his family will be able to afford new clothes, hold a few feasts for relatives and give Zakat.
"I am not saying that I am rich," Mr Shafi said. "I am poor, but there are others who are poorer than me, so it is my duty to make sure that my family is able to do Zakat. This is my obligation to my faith and family." He usually sends 15,000 rupees each month for household expenses, fees at a private, English school and to repay a loan the family took to build a house. Although his salary was reduced from Dh4,000 to Dh2,700 in February, he felt he had to maintain what he sent home, especially during the holy month. He has relied on tips and his savings.
"Ramadan is an expensive time of the year," he said. "For me and my family back home." Mr Shafi supports two children, his mother and his wife, who is qualified to work but stays at home to look after the family. "You have to look at me and my wife. We are both making sacrifices," he said. "If I lived in India, we could both work but we would earn less. "But I am here, and she has to take care of the children and my mother, so I have to work twice as hard. She is also sacrificing a lot for the sake of the family. It is not just me."