The Life: Prepaid cards in the Middle East are a growing businesses for banks, as more employers find alternatives to paying labourers with petty cash.
Cards pay off all around in the Middle East
When it comes to managing payroll expenses, the future for many small businesses involves one word: plastic.
This is because banks are rushing to supply companies in the Middle East with prepaid cards as a means of paying salaries as well as tracking expenses on business trips.
Prepaid cards are debit cards that are recharged by a customer in much the same way as they would top-up money on a mobile phone. In some instances, they are also supplemented by small lines of credit.
An increasing number of companies are seeking to use prepaid cards for their payroll purposes, says Raghu Malhotra, the general manager for the Middle East at MasterCard Worldwide.
"That's one of the fastest-growing segments in the whole of the Middle East," he says.
Companies seeking to keep track of how employees spend company cash while on business trips could also benefit, says Mr Malhotra.
So far, Visa and MasterCard have sold about 1.2 million prepaid cards in the UAE, largely driven by businesses seeking a more cost-efficient method of paying employees, says Suvo Sarkar, the general manager of consumer and elite banking at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi.
The key driver for this demand is cost, he says. Many small businesses cannot afford to pay corporate rates for business banking accounts better suited to larger companies, and instead opt for prepaid cards. Since banks do not charge interest on prepaid cards, the financing cost for small businesses is less than through traditional banking lines.
"Lower charges are what small businesses are looking for their employees as they typically are in the lowest salary brackets," says Mr Sarkar.
Card issuers hope companies that require large numbers of staff to be imported, such as those in the construction sector, will make use of these payments systems.
Some companies in the past have faced difficulties making salary payments to the UAE's migrant labourers, who must wait up to several weeks for visas to be processed upon arrival.
This delays the opening of personal bank accounts, leaving employers to handle large quantities of petty cash.
"We give cash within one or two months. We get a visa stamp and then they can open their account," says Chandramohan Ojha, the section head of human resources at Al Fajer Group, which oversees large construction projects.
While the bottlenecks were worse during the height of the property boom, the issue has become less of a problem because of the economic slowdown.
"Nowadays, people aren't arriving in blocks," Mr Mohan says. The group has 10,000 employees, about 1,500 of whom work on construction projects.
Cutting down on bureaucracy is one advantage, but Mr Sarkar also notes that prepaid cards can fulfil a social role at businesses. Such cards can help monitor payments to workers in a way that is impossible with petty cash, he says.
"[Prepaid cards have] helped with the Government's objectives to monitor and regulate workers' rights as well as help bring into the banking sector a large segment of the population," says Mr Mohan.
The Ministry of Labour's wage protection system was set up to provide a database of payments made to the UAE's migrant workforce. In theory, it is supposed to ensure workers get paid on time.
However, because some workers are sometimes paid with petty cash, it is difficult to prove that a particular worker has been paid.
Prepaid cards do not encounter this problem, says a Ministry official.