Three months ago, a healthy 49-year-old business man walked into a Citibank office in Jakarta, Indonesia to discuss the matter of a $5,500 debt on his Citi Platinum credit card. The events that followed are unclear, but four hours later, the man left Citi offices in a wheelchair. Citi cars drove him to a nearby hospital where he was announced dead.
Lawyers for the man’s widow allege that debt collectors physically harassed him in the office, pursuing a debt repayment of the equivalent of $12,000 including interest. He received a beating that eventually led to his death. The widow is suing Citi for $348 million. Citi’s lawyers contend that while there was some intimidation involved, the man died of unrelated causes.
The concept of debt in the developed world is not only mainstream, it’s interwoven in the fabric of the economy. Punishment for debt or consequences for owing money to another party are not severe. Debtors don’t go to jail, but in some circumstances, any income they generate can be transferred directly to creditors — essentially enabling indentured servitude (or worse, slavery). In Indonesia, like the United States, it is apparently customary for creditors to hire debt collectors to intimidate debtors, but unlike the United States, this intimidation can be severe. In this country, harassing phone calls, even to relatives and friends, is the practice of the seediest corporate-style debt collectors. Physical harassment for debt obligations is not the norm here, unless one deals with shady illegal practices.
A business moving into another region of the world needs to be aware of the local customs and the requirements for doing business. In some countries, it may be hard to build a business without a special application fee to the government, call it what you will. Business practices and expectations differ around the world. The promise of financial gain from having a presence in a developing nation like Indonesia is a strong incentive to enter the country for business, and for that company to succeed, it must adopt local customs and practices. Where those practices conflict with a code of ethics established for operation domestically, it can be tricky for a company to find the right balance that allows them to succeed in country while maintaining a moral standing.
Having a customer die in your office, particularly during an admitted session of intimidation, whether due to the intimidation or not, could be a pesky public relations problem. It sounds like Citi may not be to blame directly for this death, but a corporation would not permit this type of intimidation in the United States.
Published or updated July 3, 2011.