Does the astonishing volume of global remittances redeem the moral ambiguities of migrant labour? In camps, hospitals, beauty parlours and under doormats, John Gravois watches the money move.
Down the glass-fronted row of exchange houses along Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Street – the city’s unofficial remittance district, where hundreds of security cameras monitor a long, intermittent border-fence of plexiglas teller windows – Maridel Estrelles walked briskly one recent afternoon carrying a glossy faux-leather handbag and, as usual, a wallet full of other people’s money. Trying to keep pace alongside her was a young Bangladeshi man in a spread-collared shirt named Zilani, who carried a small, scuffed laptop folio with flimsy turquoise piping. They were rushing to catch a taxi to the Musaffah Industrial District, 30 minutes away, hoping to arrive there ahead of the clattering buses bound home for the labour camps at sundown.
A wholesomely pretty, disarmingly charismatic Filipina, Estrelles was dressed in a modest acrylic sweater, pale blue jeans and sandals, which slapped the pavement in double time as she walked. Without breaking stride, she called out cheerily to a cluster of blue-jumpsuited Bangladeshi construction workers sitting tiredly on a kerb, who blinked before recognising her and waving back. “Customers,” she explained, before stepping into traffic on Hamdan Street.
Estrelles’ easy-going manner is an asset in her job – which is to intercept workers’ remittances before they ever make it to Liwa Street. Estrelles works for one of the smaller currency brokers in the capital. Her role is to serve as a kind of field agent – a shoe-leather remittance collector who, in effect, brings the exchange house straight to the customer.
In a green and yellow taxi, Estrelles directed the driver to a particular labour camp in Musaffah and shut the door, muffling the street noise with a sudden thwump. No sooner had the taxi pulled into traffic than her BlackBerry rang, and she reached into her purse for a pocket calculator and a short stack of bills wrapped in a folded piece of paper. “Including charge?” she said, craning her neck. “One thousand six-hundred thirty two.” She typed a few numbers into the calculator. “Yes, po’o’poh.”
Signing off, she slipped the cash back into her purse with a little joke: “My wallet is full of money, but not mine!” The caller had given Estrelles a sum of cash several days before, but asked that she hold onto it until exchange rates to the Philippines improved. Now he was calling to learn the value of his remittance at today’s rate. He still didn’t like what he heard, so the money went back into Estrelles’s wallet. It was a service she offered to many of her customers. “Sometimes I’m carrying four million,” she said, sitting behind our burly taxi driver. “But nothing happens.”
Today’s destination was a labour camp. On other days Estrelles collects remittances from nurses on hospital wards, hairdressers at their beauty parlours or housemaids in their employers’ kitchens. Month in and month out, they hand her as much as 90 per cent of their earnings and then watch her disappear into the crowd.
One of her most long-standing customers (“she is like my mother,” Estrelles says) is an elderly housemaid whose employer forbids her from leaving the home. Each month, the older woman secretly deposits as little as Dh100 under the doormat; Estrelles picks it up and leaves a handwritten receipt in its place. Then she ferries it back to Liwa Street, where it joins the steady stream of wages that accumulate each year into a $10 billion flood of remittances out of the UAE.
Much as scientists once assumed that human activity was far too puny a force to influence the climate, economists long assumed that remittances made a negligible contribution to the global economy and the development of poor nations. But when a World Bank economist named Dilip Ratha – a migrant himself, from a poor village in the Indian state of Orissa – began putting together annual global tallies of wage transfers across borders in 2003, the numbers were dumbfounding. In 2008, to cite his most recent tally, Ratha estimates that $338 billion in remittances poured into developing countries. All the foreign aid in the world, by comparison, added up to just about $100 billion. For many countries, remittances are quite simply the most important source of foreign funds.
That’s the paradox of remittances – the most vulnerable players in the global economy add up to one of its most formidable forces. The great tide of $338 billion begins with Dhs100 left furtively under a welcome mat and carried away in secret.
En route to the labour camp, I asked Zilani about his role in this travelling remittance operation. “I am here for security,” he said, smiling helpfully. Then he held up the rumpled little laptop bag with the turquoise piping. “I carry the money.”
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