Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

The Debt Panel: 'I'm being chased for a Dh7,000 credit card bill I can't afford to pay'

The Abu Dhabi resident's employer has not paid him for eight months due to ongoing court cases leaving him unable to settle the debt

Illustration by Mathew Kurian
Illustration by Mathew Kurian

I have worked in Abu Dhabi since 2016 as a retail assistant, earning Dh5,000 a month. I signed up for a credit card in 2017 to buy a washing machine at 0 per cent interest. I then ran up a little more debt on food deliveries and phone payments. I was paying off my credit card dues consistently until July 2019. This was when some court issues with my employer began. I'd reported my company to the Ministry of Human Resources & Emiratisation for holding my passport and not allowing me to go on an approved holiday. They then made counter claims saying I had stolen money from the till and a large amount of stock. This led to civil and criminal cases, which have been ongoing since October, as well as an immigration ban.

The company has not paid my salary since June last year and they still have my passport. My credit card debt is now at Dh7,090 including late fees and interest. I have an unlimited contract, with my visa expiring in October, but I have not received any notice of termination, despite the court case over the unpaid salary. The company owes me eight months salary from June 2019, with the total at Dh40,000. However, my visa expired in September 2019 and they have still not returned my passport.

I am unemployed and have no way of earning. My phone has been disconnected due to unpaid bills as well, so I am unreachable. I recently received my first email from debt collection agents saying they will file a police case against me over my security cheque, but I haven't issued a security cheque to my bank. I was able to pay the minimum Dh750 due by borrowing from a friend but I cannot do that anymore as I've exhausted their generosity already. My family cannot send me any money as I do not have a valid ID card to use at an exchange company. The last payment I made on the card was Dh300 in November. My living expenses for rent and groceries and transport come to about Dh3,000 and are all paid by my fiancée.

Without a salary, my family took out a loan to pay for my lawyer's fees. I am confident my court case will conclude next month with a positive ruling in my favour but I know I won't be awarded any money. What can I do to get my salary and any dues owed to me by my employer? And how can I resolve this credit card debt? KM, Abu Dhabi

Debt panellist 1: R Sivaram, executive vice president, head of retail banking products, Emirates NBD

I am glad you are being conscientious about your debt and committed to finding ways to pay it off. As a first step, I suggest you ask your lawyer to help you get your passport back and regularise your visa. I understand you are not optimistic about receiving any compensation in the court ruling but a positive verdict could be an opportunity for continued or new employment, which is the most important in returning to financial health. In parallel, I encourage you to discuss a debt restructuring option with your bank at the earliest. If possible, and given your fiancée is employed, there could be an opportunity to jointly work out a viable payment plan.

I wish you luck with the court ruling and finding suitable employment soon to help alleviate your financial misfortunes.

Debt panellist 2: Keren Bobker, an independent financial adviser with Holborn Assets

Employers are not permitted to hold a person’s passport and can only keep it for a few days when affixing or cancelling a visa. If the company refuses to return it, I suggest going to the police as this is a legal matter and this company is breaking both international law and the rules of the UAE.

The amount owed is relatively small and I am surprised it has even been passed to a debt collection agency. If you did not write a security cheque, the agency is bluffing or using their standard threats. There will not be multiple court cases over a sum of just Dh7,500 and such threats are unprofessional. A bank can only request a travel ban but that will be at the discretion of the court.

Assuming the court case rules in your favour, you will be awarded the money owed to you but too many employers are terrible at actually paying up. You need to tell the court you have concerns about being paid and ask for their assistance. You can also ask the MoHRE to cancel your visa so that you can take up further employment and start earning money again.

If you have issues making payments, consider taking advantage of the new law regarding insolvency as this would at least get the bank 'off your back’ as they must go along with the court’s decision regarding payments and not bother borrowers as they have been doing.

I note your family cannot send you money directly, but they can they send it to a trusted friend to pass to you. This would at least give you breathing space to make a repayment.

Debt panellist 3: Ambareen Musa, founder and chief executive of Souqalmal.com

Let's address the unpaid credit card debt first. The fact your growing credit card dues and employment dispute coincided is more than just a case of bad timing. A savings pool equivalent to two to three months of your salary, could have helped avoid this debt altogether. Not having a financial cushion to fall back on is the primary reason you're stuck with a credit card balance you cannot afford to repay.

As for the dispute with your employer, you have already exhausted all legal routes after suing the company and being counter-sued in return. Since you are hopeful the court cases will be settled in your favour, you should be able to get your end-of-service benefits and unpaid dues that the employer owes you. Whatever financial compensation you receive in the end could be your ticket out of your debt issues.

Even if you are denied financial compensation after the court decision, a positive ruling means you can get your passport back and have the immigration ban lifted. That then leaves you with two options: your first is to seek new employment in the UAE. This would allow you to earn enough money to pay off your outstanding credit card balance, repay your family and settle the loan they took out in your home country and repay the money lent by your friends.

Your other option is to return home, however, this would require settling your outstanding debt before you exit the country. The quickest way to achieve this would be to negotiate with the credit card provider and request a reduced lump sum settlement. The bank may be willing to waive off a portion of the interest as well as late payment penalties, in return for an upfront settlement. While you are negotiating with the bank, gather the funds for repayment by liquidating some of your savings back home or taking on temporary employment in the UAE.

The Debt Panel is a weekly column to help readers tackle their debts more effectively. If you have a question for the panel, write to pf@thenational.ae

Updated: February 18, 2020 03:30 PM

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