The Debt Panel: 'We lost our business and I am now facing bounced cheque cases'

The Ras Al Khaimah resident is unable to work as his visa expired more than a year ago and his legal troubles are mounting

My family runs a successful travel agency in Nigeria and in mid-2017, my father and I decided to open a travel company in the UAE. However, we were convinced by a third party to open a cleaning company instead and were told it would be far more successful than our travel agency plans.

We registered the company in Ras Al Khaimah and my father was the partner. I moved to UAE in late 2017 to run the company on behalf of my father as he returned to Nigeria.

I would like to note that I have no experience in the cleaning business but I thought it would not be very hard. In total, we invested about Dh70,000 in the business, which included the licence, cleaning machines, office supplies, computers, a car and other expenses.

The business did not work out as planned and the licence expired without us making any profit. Soon after, the local sponsor cancelled the licence.

To survive financially, I started working as an agent for a travel agency in Ras Al Khaimah. I was assisting people to process their visit visas but the company insisted that I had to issue a Dh15,000 cheque as a guarantee to ensure there would not be any visa offences from my end.

Soon, I had three people in breach of visa laws; two of which I resolved but the third one ran away. I tried to convince the company that one person in breach of visa laws does not justify a Dh15,000 cheque claim, but they didn’t care.

The owner of the travel agency then filed a police case against me and there is a judgment from the court to pay back the Dh15,000. My bank also filed a case of Dh13,750 against me for a reason that I do not yet understand and my landlord filed a bounced cheque case of Dh4,500.

My visa expired more than a year ago and I cannot cancel or renew it. Because of this, I cannot find a job. I also owe Dh6,500 to a friend who has been helping me for a long time. I am scared of visiting the court or police as I have no means of paying the debts and cannot afford to the legal fees.

My predicament is quite unfortunate because I realise that it’s the result of bad decisions. But I am hopeful that I will find a way out of this. Can you advise me on what to do? PH, Ras Al Khaimah

Debt Panellist 1: Steve Cronin, founder of DeadSimpleSaving.com

You have had a run of bad luck compounded by some poor decisions. There is not a big safety net for entrepreneurs who come here hoping to make money and then find their business fails.

Starting a business in a sector where you have no experience is certainly asking for trouble. The cleaning industry operates on thin margins and requires manpower, as well as capital investment in machinery.

At the end of the day, everyone wants their cheques paid and then a lot of pressure on you will go away. The actual sum of the amount you owe, excluding any fines, is around Dh33,250. Your family runs a successful travel agency in Nigeria – can they pay this for you? After all, you came to the UAE to expand the family business.

You can also look to the Nigerian community in the UAE. Someone may take pity on you, given a lot of this has not really been your fault, and help you pay it off. Alternatively, they may find you some work or at least give you some advice. If a bailout by your family is not possible, then you need to dig into the details of each cheque. You also need legal and regulatory advice.

Quote
From the set of facts given, I strongly advise you to seek legal assistance as soon as possible
Hazem Balbaa, associate at BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates

Call the UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation's helpline on 800-60, which you can do anonymously and toll-free. Ask them about your ability to find another job onshore or in a free zone given your situation, but also ask them about the legality of your employer’s behaviour. You may be able to appeal the case against the Dh15,000 cheque. If you have worked for that employer in the past 12 months (despite your visa lapsing), you may be able to file a claim for unlawful termination.

It seems unreasonable to expect you, as an employee, to issue guarantee cheques from your own personal funds, unless you were not a direct employee of the agency. At the risk of losing your job, you should have refused as bouncing a cheque is a serious offence in the UAE, despite smaller amounts being decriminalised in Dubai.

If you are able to find access to legal support, investigate whether you can file a case against your employer for forcing you to use personal cheques to support the company’s business.

Contact your bank via phone or in person to understand exactly why they have filed a case against you. It is most probably for missed payments regarding a loan or credit card. Document all interactions you have with them.

You cannot keep hiding from everyone. Engage your family, the ministry, your community and any available resources so you can fully understand your situation and the options available to you.

Debt Panellist 2: Hazem Balbaa, associate at BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates

From the set of facts given, I strongly advise you to seek legal assistance as soon as possible.

In general, issuing cheques in bad faith – for example, without sufficient funds – entail criminal liability. However, granting a lawyer with a power of attorney will enable them to learn more about the case filed by the bank against you.

In terms of practicality, you can also reach out to the different creditors: your bank, landlord, friend and the travel agency. By reaching out to these relevant parties, an attempt should be made to reschedule the amounts owed.

A lawyer will be able to help you come up with a reasonable rescheduling proposal, ensure that it is legally enforceable and advise you on any future steps you should take.

In the event that a settlement agreement is reached or a rescheduling of the debt is agreed, this can give you more flexibility to manage your affairs, such as renewing your visa and finding a new job.

Debt panellist 3: Carol Glynn, founder of Conscious Finance Coaching

This is a very complicated and difficult situation you are in. You need legal advice to deal with the ongoing police cases raised against you.

You are in the UAE without a valid visa, have two bounced cheque cases and a bank case raised against you, as well as significant debt. It is impossible to gain legal employment under these circumstances, so to avoid the risk of imprisonment you need significant financial help from either family or friends.

You mentioned your family runs a successful business in Nigeria. As you came to the UAE to help run a joint business with your father, it is reasonable to request his help now. Can your father and/or other members of your family provide you with financial support so that you can hire legal assistance, close out your legal issues and repay your debts in the UAE? This will allow you to return home or find another job.

You should also formally ask your bank to explain the reason for filing a case against you. If they are not forthcoming, the next step is to write to the complaint department of your bank and request that they provide full details of the issue. If they do not reply within 30 days or you believe their reasons for raising a complaint are without basis, you can escalate the issue with the Consumer Protection Department of the UAE Central Bank.

Did your landlord file against you in Dubai or Ras Al Khaimah? It is important to understand this because in Dubai, you will receive a fine of between Dh2,000 to Dh10,000 for a bounced cheque of this size. However, this only applies to Dubai Courts. The consequences of bouncing a cheque could be more significant if the complaint was raised in Ras Al Khaimah.

You are in a very difficult situation but I hope you have family who can help you resolve the issues to start afresh.

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: June 30th 2021, 5:00 AM
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