The National - A way up
A way up
Four migrants came to Dubai in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. The road to progress is not easy, but these determined men and women are not alone: for every problem they encounter there is a group that can help
By Ramola Talwar Badam
August 18, 2017
Millions of workers who come to the UAE plan to buy a small plot of land in their home country, build a house or pay for their children’s education. They come to the UAE with dreams. Not huge ambitions, but modest hopes, and more so for their families back home than themselves. But sometimes along the way they flounder. The fancy restaurants, big shops, latest products and easy credit cards can derail even the best laid plans. Life in the UAE teaches some tough lessons to workers trapped in debt, and it can take more than a decade for them to get back on track.
Others in small rooms and labour accommodations turn to people who can help them start a slow transformation to a better life, with drivers, supervisors and office workers attending financial planning classes and ferreting money into savings accounts to enjoy a peaceful retirement or start a new venture at home. Then there are those who set aside time every Friday to learn English and new skills. Spending their one day off a week in a classroom to better themselves and improve their opportunities. Many speak at least two languages, but realise that with more than 150 nationalities in the UAE, English will help them to step up. In simple phrases and halting English, they describe their journey and their aspirations in their own words.
Here we tell the stories of a Ugandan woman who started as a bus supervisor but worked her way up to office manager; a Pakistani man who went from being a construction worker to a driver who can carry an English conversation with his boss; an Indian man who earns just Dh2,000 a month but with the help of a financial literacy radio show has managed to buy a small house in his Indian village; and a Filipino who fell into deep debt but through the help of Pinoy Wise managed to work his way out and up in life.
All these people make up the fabric of the UAE’s workers who have left their families behind because they dream of a better future. Every Friday afternoon in big dining halls and small rooms tucked within the sprawling labour accommodations in Dubai, drivers, bus attendants and office assistants studiously read aloud paragraphs from English textbooks to better their job prospects.
After lunch on their day off, the dining hall in an Al Quoz camp is cleared and workers huddle around wooden carrom boards, the occasional shout echoing across the halls. Oblivious to the nearby clatter, about 30 regulars across the hall pull up white plastic chairs to hear a volunteer teacher explain the work they will cover in a two-hour reading session.
Only a year ago, many in the class were too nervous to speak in front of their peers. Having never spoken in public before, workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Uganda were uneasy speaking in a foreign language.
Over time, hesitation gave way to reserved confidence and students began cautiously raising their hands to read out sections of the short stories from the English pages handed to them.
Margaret: her dream is
to build a school in
Kampala and work
Ugandan national Margaret Nabatanzi stands out as an example of how the classes helped shore up her confidence, shape her personality and earn her a promotion at work from bus attendant to office support staff. A relative newcomer to the UAE, Ms Nabatanzi had a meltdown on her first day in her new role when she was overwhelmed at the thought of speaking to senior officers.
“The first day I cried and my boss was like, ‘You can do this’. I had to talk to myself. I thought my powers can’t go just like that. This is my chance to be something, so I went back the second day, the third day until I got better. I was scared because I had only worked with students before and never with administration staff. I thought maybe they will be rude to me or maybe they won’t like me because of my colour.”
In Dubai for less than a year, she worked her way up from being a bus attendant to an office messenger and the demands of her new job are challenging. But the native Luganda speaker has learnt that she can handle the pressure.
“There are people who others fear to approach. Most staff in my category cannot work with them because the administration staff, they are fast speakers, their English is so fast. I’m the only one who can handle them. You have to be bold enough to say, ‘Excuse me, what did you say?’ But they don’t like it if 10 times you say ‘excuse me’.”
Her new job requires that she moves between departments with documents that need to be delivered. She is keen to get her friends to join the Friday English class so they too are promoted because she believes everyone should get a chance.
“Right now I’m bold enough to speak what I think and express it without any fear. I used to be so scared. I was the kind of person who would wait for others to speak. I would just shake my head and couldn’t speak out. The course has taken me a step ahead, it has really helped me a lot.”
Describing Ms Nabatanzi as the class star, volunteer teacher Sweety Lulla said making all students confront their fear by addressing the group fostered composure and poise at work.
“When Margaret joined she was very shy, an introvert, too shaky to come forward and read or take any initiative. But we saw a shift as we continued the sessions because she has a lot of thoughts and ideas. Now she is like a star of our class and she also helps others.”
While Ms Nabatanzi’s success has thrilled her family back home, she says most people do not appreciate the power of learning English.
Pictured in 2004, 14-year-old Margaret, back right, stands next to her grandmother and cousins in Masaka
Having completed secondary school in Kampala, she did not have the finances to go to college.
“My mum is so proud of me because she knows me as a very quiet person. But when she heard I was taking a course in English, she asked what I would do with it.
“I thought I would at least get a certificate and it may take me somewhere,” says the 27-year old, whose long-term ambition is to start a school for girls like herself.
“My dream is to work with children and start up a school. I want everyone to get a chance to be enlightened by education. Now I see education is everything you need, with education you can never fail in life.”
Learning has opened up Ms Nabatanzi’s world. She is grappling with the concept of karma in a book she is reading.
“In a book, I learnt that what goes around comes around. So now I know that if you do bad, sometime in the future it will come back to you. It is better if someone can do some good not expecting something in return. For me I’m so eager. I want to score 100 per cent, so I will put in a lot of effort expecting 100 per cent back.” The reading programme Ms Nabatanzi attends is among a handful of regular classes ranging from skill training to English language for workers organised by companies and universities in the UAE. The teachers have witnessed a transformation in their charges and the goals they set for themselves.
“There is a transition they undergo and we see a confidence boost when they come forward and try to communicate. I have seen the change in them because they were apprehensive about reading in front of everyone in a group,” says Ms Lulla, who works with a green energy company but volunteers as a teacher in a reading programme run by non-government organisation SmartLife.
Sweety Lulla, volunteer teacher at SmartLife
In its second year, the SmartLife project is conducted in workers’ accommodation in two Dubai labour accommodations and in a Jumeirah Lake Towers office. About 130 students attend the classes, up from 80 participants from last year.
“We first made them comfortable by explaining that this was their space to speak, that it was fine to make mistakes. That was the first lesson and then it got easier for them. Once they realised their mistakes would not be scrutinised, they started to open up, they started sharing and became part of the class,” Ms Lulla says.
Ishtiaq: hopes more
education will help him
continue to grow in his job
Another conscientious student studying with SmartLife is Ishtiaq Hussein, who asks teachers to explain words he does not understand and promptly jots down the meaning in his brown book. Fragile, hastily, adversity are a few among hundreds of words carefully written in his notebook. Enclosed within the pages are words to satisfy his thirst for knowledge - horrified, appropriate, imagine - which are methodically penned next to potatoes, eggs, coffee, tea and other words he comes across in daily usage.
“I sometime get words from a newspaper. When my teacher reads a difficult word, I keep it in my diary. The teacher writes it on the board. I ask the meaning and write it down,” says Mr Hussein, frowning in concentration to understand words he has copied in English alongside the Urdu meaning.
Starting out as a labourer in a construction company 15 years ago, he saved money to take driving lessons and now ferries the senior management team to meetings across the country. His belief that English will open doors runs so deep that he even speaks to his two young sons, ages 8 and 6, in English when he calls home in Lahore, Pakistan.
Abdullah and Ahmad, Ishtiaq's sons, at home in Lahore
Like most students, he lapses into his native language Hindi to convey important thoughts and ideas.
“I made sure my children study in an English medium school because without this language there is no option in life, there are no paths that will open up,” says the 35-year-old.
“They were excited to know I’m also learning English and are happy to speak to me in English on the phone. I feel good. I have explained to my family that for our improvement we have to take all chances and opportunities we get to learn and speak English.” Much like Mr Hussein, improving the lot of her family is also crucial for bus attendant Biji Mol. Five years in Dubai have helped her and her husband - a plumber in India’s Kerala state - put their eldest son through a master’s degree in tourism. Learning to speak English is high up on a list of goals she has set for herself.
“Before I could not speak English. Now I have improved so much. Before I didn’t know what to say to parents or to students. Now I can ask them where their ID cards are and to check their bags.” A year of attending the class has given her the courage to pick up the mobile phone and inform parents when a bus is delayed in traffic. “English is important. Now I use a mobile phone and tell parents, ‘Please wait, there is traffic on the way, that’s why we are late.”
Ensuring her younger son goes to college is another goal she has set herself, as well as working her way up to the school reception, where she must field parents’ queries. When poverty stood in the way of her children’s education, Ms Mol - then a housewife – applied for her passport. She knew working overseas would pay her more than a farm job in Mavelikara village in southern India.
“We are a very poor family. When my son told me he won’t study because we have no money, I got a passport made and came here. I was a normal housewife. Now my family is better and my son has finished college.”
Beyond the aspirations of her children, the 41-year-old mother has plans for herself too, which include a second attempt at an exam that she failed 25 years ago. “How old you are is no problem, you can try again. I will pass this time.” Her determination forces her hand up to answer when a teacher asks the class to explain what they would see if they went to a bank. Along with other students, she then attempts to understand the meaning of the words such as ATM, bank teller, manager and bank balance that have been written on a white board.
In another class at the same workers’ camp, a teacher realises her class do not understand the meaning of the words “skinning his knuckles” from a passage they have read out. She calls on a student to demonstrate how to change a car tyre.
Workers learn English during a SmartLife class in Al Quoz
Amid laughter, a chorus ensues, naming body parts from ankles and knees to elbows until the students discern that the character in the story had grazed his hand. Using a mixture of reading and interactive sessions with everyday examples, the teachers keep the weekly sessions interesting to ensure the students return every Friday, their one day off a week. In the dining hall, the men playing carrom and lounging on maroon couches move outdoors to sip tea and chat in groups along paths between the camp’s residential quarters.
Pakistani school bus driver Dilshad Khan shakes his head at the men. He is focused on attending class with an eye on becoming a supervisor. “I tell my friends to come. But they rest, sleep in room, wait outside. It is their decision to come or not. Before I couldn’t speak the way I do now. If you don’t know, if you don’t understand, you cannot progress. I learn more, I grow, I understand,” he says.
Indian technician Ajesh Chandra faces jibes from co-workers in Abu Dhabi when they hear he travels by bus or shared taxi all the way to Al Quoz to attend the classes every Friday. The landscaping company where he works transferred him from Dubai to their headquarters in the capital three months ago, but he wouldn’t let the distance deter him from attending class. He spends a precious Dh90 every week in taxi fares for the sake of education.
“It is expensive for me. But to go to bank, to go to doctor, to go to airport, English needed. Now I can 100 per cent fill forms in bank, railway station, electricity office. I feel proud,” he says. “People make fun of me sometimes. They laugh, they say, ‘Why are you going to Al Quoz?’ I reply: I am reading, speaking English. I’m interested. I’m going.’ I know they are lazy, I’m not lazy, I go to class,” he says simply.
For Shabir Ali Sarkar, who works in a jewellery workshop, speaking clearly on the phone to sales staff and grasping the intricacies of a design are vital to his job. “I have to speak to all nationalities so I improved my English-speaking skills. Sometimes customers need a specific design that needs clear explanation on the phone,” the Indian worker says.
This realisation that they will drive their own development is perfectly described by Ms Mol when she explains why she regularly attends the classes. “English is important. Anywhere you go, speaking English is important. If you know English, you will go up, up, up. If you don’t understand English, you are going down, down, down.”
Merely wiring money home should not be the only goal of workers, say dedicated volunteers and consular officials who visit workers’ camps and offices to build other skills that will add value when they return home. Workers also sign up for classes or tune into radio programmes on financial stability that first teach them to break out of the debt trap and then to secure their future.It is easy for workers to lose their way in the glittering, neon-lit world of the Gulf when they move here from humble villages and towns.
Many rack up debt, splurging on expensive electronic gadgets or clothes way beyond monthly salaries of between Dh2,000 and Dh7,000, others send home almost all their wages to pay for house loans and their children’s education. Since they do not save for their retirement, they have little to fall back on when they return after working in the Gulf for 20 years or more. Officials say credit card liabilities remain the No 1 problem affecting workers in the country, although the number of cases has decreased since the 2008 global downturn.
“We tell them the more credit cards they have, the more difficult it is for them to manage. We see fewer problems now because it’s not that easy to get credit cards, unlike before,” says Ophelia Almenario, labour attaché at the Philippine overseas labour office in Abu Dhabi.
“So while the number of problems regarding credit cards has decreased, this is still the No 1 problem among our overseas workers. Some pay on time, but the problem arises if they get terminated from their job and they don’t have a source of income to make the payments.”
Albert: doesn't want
his children to make
the same mistakes he
This is the story of Albert Sabado who maxed out 13 credit cards by racking up purchases of electronic goods and dining in expensive restaurants. Living way beyond his means landed him in trouble with the law and in debt that he is still paying back 12 years later. The Filipino printing press supervisor’s debt spiralled to Dh50,0000 with six banks in four years after he first signed on for a card in 2005.
He finally paid back Dh27,000 to the last bank in 2015 after borrowing the money, without interest, from friends. Now a sales officer, Mr Sabado still owes Dh8,000 to the friends who helped him clear his major bank debts.
“The loans I took were not for a house or any project in Manila, it was only for pleasure here. Eating in good hotels, buying stereo, cameras, video cameras, electronics, because I love gadgets. It looked like I’m a big man or something. I didn’t have a plan. I just experienced how to become rich with the credit cards,” Mr Sabado said.
He sent home most of his monthly Dh5,000 wages and used about the same amount he earned in overtime to pay credit card fees. Like most defaulters, he did not realise the interest was building up when he did not clear the full amount.
“That time it was very easy to get 13 cards because with each bank you get two cards at least. I just signed a form and got a credit limit, it was simple,” the 52-year-old said. His fantasy world began unraveling when disaster struck with the global recession in 2008 during which thousands of workers across the Gulf lost their jobs. “Our overtime was much less and sometimes there was no salary for two or three months. Then people started calling, threatening me that I would go to jail if I did not pay back the cards.
“But what was the use of threatening me because I was not getting my salary? When I got some money, I paid for the cards, but the fees kept coming more and more and I could not pay.”
Then a bank filed a police case against him when Mr Sabado could no longer make payments and his employer filed an absconding case when he accepted another job offering higher wages. Although the absconding case was later withdrawn, he had hit rock bottom. With three children in the Philippines, he needed to keep sending money home because his family depended on him. Unable to go home for two years after 2006 because of the legal case, he initially did not let his wife know about the trouble he was in. The Abu Dhabi resident reached his lowest point when he was forced to eat only bread after paying Dh1,200 for rent, water and electricity in a shared apartment.
“The money inside my pocket was Dh50 for a whole month. I could eat one paratha [flatbread] a day. I had to pay my house bills in Philippines because I cannot stop sending home money. I didn’t want my family to suffer also. My friends would say, ‘Come, we will all go to the mall to eat’. But I’m ashamed. I have Dh30 to Dh50. How will I go and eat?”
Attending workshops with Pinoy Wise, an organisation that advises Philippine nationals to manage their finances, was a lifesaver and the lifeline he used to extricate himself from debt. He also came clean to his wife and worked part-time jobs until 2am.
“My wife got very upset. She cried and said she told me not to take credit cards because it would be a big problem for us. She blamed me a lot and I tried to make her understand that I would change. I had to tell my wife the truth - that is why we are together for 23 years.”
After faithfully attending seminars, he stopped using credit cards, learnt tips on how to save and talk to banks.
Albert pays for dinner at the affordable restaurant he frequents
“I realised there was no other approach but to freeze all my credit cards and pay the big amounts first. I kept the cards in my room. I would save money and ask the bank what amount I could pay to close all my problems. I took money from my friends without interest to pay back the cards. Then khalas, it is almost over.” With the bulk of his debt paid, he is resolutely making pension fund payments and saving for an apartment in Manila.
“I’m saving for my condominium but I’m also paying my colleagues and my friends. I tell them to please bear with me and they understand that I will not let our relationship go.”
He now has one credit card, which he rarely uses, linked to his salary account. When recently told the credit limit would be increased, he promptly declined, asking the bank to cap the limit.
Mr Sabado has also stopped gadget shopping. “I carry an old Nokia and Samsung, no iPhone for me. My children have iPhones, but this comes from their aunties and uncles, not from me,” he says.
Acknowledging his mistakes to his eldest daughter, who completed her accountancy exams recently, he wants his children to learn from his errors.
“When I went on leave I told my daughter, little by little, about my experience. I asked her to study hard, get high grades and a good salary in a good company. I told my children that they have to be the boss of their salary.”
Teaching Filipinos like Mr Sabado to chalk out their objectives is the aim of Edgar Bacason, partner of a lifestyle company and co-ordinator of the Pinoy Wise Movement, launched in 2012 by a non-government organisation to provide support to Filipinos working overseas.
“Filipinos went overseas with the purest of intentions, to provide for their families, but they ended up going back to the Philippines without any savings. They have problems with the police and the banks for buying things they did not need. We took them back to the basics. We made them realise that we are migrants and there are two sides of migration - going home happy with more money; or, on the negative side, some families break up because they don’t have common goals.”
Ensuring his countrymen understand the true meaning of savings is vital.
“We made them understand that they can spend only what is left after they save. We teach them to differentiate between needs and wants so they are able to control their expenses. And we talk about entrepreneurship to plant a seed and arouse their interest in investments and in business,” Mr Bacason said.
Expatriates are also advised by Barney Almazar, head of legal aid at the Philippine embassy and consulate.
“We help them come to a settlement with the bank because at the end of the day the banks want to get paid. They would rather get monthly settlements than put you in jail and get nothing. But if people don’t change their lifestyle, then nothing can happen.”
Mr Almazar said the problem stemmed from abuse of credit. “To me, it’s not a problem about having a credit card, because that is an access to a credit line. It’s the abuse that is causing the problem. It’s a false sense of entitlement. This is not money they have earned but they are already using it up,” said the director of Gulf Law.
“When they are new here, they want to buy and experience everything. They see offers here and sales there and get into trouble. But they want their family to think they have made it big in the UAE. They eat in a fancy restaurant so friends and family will see they are having a good life. But their family does not know they are sleeping at a friend’s place and don’t even have money to buy food for tomorrow.
“I tell them it is a matter of communicating what they really earn. I ask them, ‘Is it your goal to just have a Facebook status with an LV bag? Is that what you want, or do you want a house back in Manila?’”
Mr Sabado has learnt the hard way. He now acts as a conscience for others, reminding them of their goals when they first reached the UAE’s shores trailing a suitcase. “I see other Filipinos crying in immigration because of cases against them. I tell my countrymen that you come abroad to work and not for pleasure. I still want a good car and good house. I will retire in four years when I’m 56. So before I’m 60, I’m still strong, can go to Hong Kong and travel for a little while. As long as you’re alive, there should be a goal. I don’t stop dreaming.”
Of the 45,000 individuals the Philippine legal aid section has assisted over the past four years, at least half the cases were related to debt and bounced cheques, with the remainder covering labour issues, drinking and pregnancy out of wedlock.
Consulates and non-government organisations guide workers in seminars, workshops and one-to-one meetings, convincing them to rein in spending and place them on a path to saving for the future instead.