When some executives from a money exchange company visited worker camps to give talks on saving money and drumming up remittances, they repeatedly heard that employers were releasing salaries long after the due date – sometimes once in two months. When they could barely make ends meet, the workers asked, how could they scrape together money to remit back home?
And yet, life must go on. A school or college in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh is hardly going to waive fees because the sole breadwinner has not been paid on time. Basic living expenses such as house rent, food, healthcare keep rolling in. Some workers face additional spikes of family weddings or emergencies that need unexpected and urgent cash transactions. At such times, without a regular salary, many of them turn to loan sharks who lend them the money at such exorbitant interest rates that the debtor is caught in what seems like an endless cycle of repayment.
In many cases of suicide, financial woes and an inability to repay money lenders is cited as a reason for the victim taking the extreme step. Indeed, the GDN reported that one debtor borrowed BD2,000 in November 2018 and in eight months had paid the loan shark BD2,300 just in interest, without making a dent on the original loan amount. That’s a staggering 115 per cent (approx.) rate of interest.
Interest and usury both refer to a profit on loans, but there is a difference – interest is a fee for borrowing money and usury is excessive interest. Usury is strictly forbidden in the Holy Quran which sternly calls upon usurers to fear the wrath of God.
It is great news, therefore, that a local charity group, the Palisha Virudha Samithi (PVS – Committee Against Interest) has dedicated itself to acting as go-between for debtors with their money-lenders and is unpicking the legal tangles that usually accompany such cases. Many of the borrowers desperately hypothecate their land and assets back home, are often unaware of their rights and sign blank cheques and papers that are later used against them. The loan sharks have teams even back home to chase the debtor and the cycle of harassment does not end in Bahrain.
What struck me about the work of the PVS is their intent to support and help the debtors with a complete lack of judgement. They are sympathetic about the compulsions that force the men and women to borrow money so recklessly and use a combination of appealing to the charitable instinct of the money-lender and legal threats to sort out the problem.
The volunteer work notwithstanding, in a country which proclaims Islam as its official religion, and which has such a strict Central Bank that keeps a gimlet eye on financial transactions, can we not have an official legal net to ensure these usurious money lenders are caught and punished? To draw a somewhat skewed parallel, traffickers in humans are punished, those who conduct transactions akin to sex trade are punished – so why not money lenders whose interest rate clearly defies injunctions clearly laid out in the Holy Quran?
Meanwhile, workers need to know their rights beyond raising voices for salaries. The dangers of signing any blank instrument, be it a paper or a cheque, should be dinned into them. Often, they have such low sense of their own value that they think their signatures are worth nothing – and realise too late that they have signed away their happiness and future.