Remittance vouchers that serve as loans?

Police officers carrying out a raid on one of cellphone retailer Kata Store's three shops at Lucky Plaza yesterday. Kata, which is not a licensed moneylender, has a tie-up with remittance agency Brunphil Express.
Police officers carrying out a raid on one of cellphone retailer Kata Store's three shops at Lucky Plaza yesterday. Kata, which is not a licensed moneylender, has a tie-up with remittance agency Brunphil Express.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Shop appears to get around new rules with scheme that lets maids send money home

It started with a $500 loan from a licensed moneylender, but it soon spiralled into a $1,700 debt Filipino maid Marimar just did not know how to manage.

The money was for family members back home who were sick.

Marimar, who wanted to be identified by her nickname, said that over a six-month period, she had to borrow from different licensed moneylenders to settle her original debt because she kept missing repayments.

But when tighter borrowing rules kicked in on Nov 30 last year, the 40-year-old was stuck.

She was already using all $700 from her monthly salary to repay her debt. Marimar did not have enough money to send home.

Under the new regulations, foreigners earning less than $10,000 a year here can borrow up to only $1,500 from all licensed moneylenders combined. This comes amid concerns over a sharp increase in the number of maids taking out loans and getting into debt.

With her $1,700 debt, Marimar could not borrow any more.

So when she heard Kata Store, a cellphone retailer at Lucky Plaza, sold remittance vouchers, she thought she was thrown a lifeline.


Kata Store at Lucky Plaza, on Jan 25, 2019. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Marimar told The Straits Times: "My friend told me that I could take a loan from Kata in the form of a remittance voucher and I thought, 'why not?'"

On Dec 16 last year, she bought a $700 remittance voucher. Marimar had to pay an upfront fee of $102.

She was then required to pay $153 a month over five months; and $148 in the sixth month. In total, she would have ended up paying $1,015 - 45 per cent more than the $700 she sent back to her family.

The Straits Times saw Marimar's instalment repayment details printed on a receipt. It stated that an administrative charge of $2 a day would be imposed if payment is not received on the due date.

After buying the voucher, Marimar went to remittance agency Brunphil Express on the second level of the same mall to have the money sent to the Philippines.

"I needed to show the staff at Brunphil my purchase receipt and the staff helped to remit $700 to the Philippines," said Marimar.


Brunphil Express at Lucky Plaza on Jan 25, 2019. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Last month, The Straits Times spoke to a manager at Brunphil Express - which holds a remittance licence issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore - who confirmed the collaboration with Kata.

The manager, who wanted to be known only as Ms Chie, said: "We will help to remit the money first and collect the money from Kata at the end of the day."

She declined to reveal how much Brunphil has remitted through its collaboration with Kata, but said the vouchers were very popular with maids. "It's Kata's promotion. We just help to remit the money. We don't sell the vouchers."

Yesterday, more than a dozen officers from the police's unlicensed-moneylending unit raided all three Kata outlets at the mall and the single Brunphil Express unit. Kata is not a licensed moneylender.

 
 
 

A banking professional whose maid bought a remittance voucher from Kata questioned the legality of cellphone retailers offering loans.

"They will say it's an instalment plan and it appears legal, but these are shops licensed to sell handphones, not remittance vouchers," said the man, who asked not to be named.

A maid who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that to buy the remittance voucher, maids had to provide Kata with two contact numbers - one of which has to be that of a family member or friend living in the Philippines. The other can be of a friend based in Singapore.

The maids also needed to provide a copy of their work permit and sign an agreement form.

Some later went to Pastor Billy Lee, executive director and founder of Blessed Grace Social Services, for help. Said Pastor Lee: "These are clearly loans to maids disguised as instalment plans for purchases of goods."

Last month, he took some of them to make a police report against Kata. Kata's owner could not be reached for comment.

Lawyer Chia Boon Teck of Chia Wong law firm said moneylending contracts that are deemed illegal are not enforceable in court if the borrower defaults on payments.

"When illegal moneylenders have no legal recourse to recover the loans, other like-minded law breakers will watch and learn not to do such things," he added.

It was revealed in Parliament last November that 28,000 maids borrowed from licensed moneylenders in the first six months of last year.

This is more than double the 12,000 who did so in the whole of 2017. In 2016, there were just 1,500 maids who took out such loans.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2019, with the headline 'Remittance vouchers that serve as loans?'. Print Edition | Subscribe