The Human Cost of Globalism: New York Nannies and Georgetown Slaves

The grave of Cornelius Hawkins, one of 272 slaves sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to help keep what is now Georgetown University afloat. Source:thenewyorktimes

The grave of Cornelius Hawkins, one of 272 slaves sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to help keep what is now Georgetown University afloat. Source:The New York Times

New Orleans   The argument changes when the global economy acquires a human face. Rarely has that been clearer than in two recent stories, one about a Filipino nanny in New York City and the other tracing the descendants of slaves sold by Georgetown University to their graveyards and relatives in Louisiana.

We talk about the predatory nature of remittances frequently because they bleed immigrant families and migrant workers of critical financial resources that they are sending their families and communities in their home countries as well as the quality of living and employment conditions where they work. The New Yorker ran a long story about a woman they called “Emma” from the Philippines, college educated in accounting with nine daughters and a husband. At forty-four years old with her oldest two daughters in college she came to the realization that there was no way on the wages paid in the Philippines that they would be able to pay for seven more to also go to college. She then made the wrenching decision to join a migrant “mother’s march” of sorts, joining a sister, women from her church, and a former home economics teacher in illegally migrating to the US to work as a nanny and caregiver.

The article points out that more than half of the workers surveyed several years ago by the Domestic Workers Alliance were undocumented. It also makes clear that the new, 21st century migrant is more likely to be a women and someone employed in the service industry as a caregiver than in older migrations of construction and factory workers. A huge export from the Philippines is workers, known as OFW or Overseas Filipino Workers since “a tenth of the population now works abroad, supporting nearly half of the country’s households and leaving some nine million Filipino children missing a parent.” And, it’s usually the mothers now, since “in the past decade, three-quarters of OFWs have been women.” Emma has not seen her children or husband or been home in 16 years. She has missed her mother’s funeral, though she and her sister paid for it. She has gotten her daughters through college but the exchange has been living on $20 per week and afraid to go home because she could be prevented from returning and now doesn’t have enough money yet to retire in the Philippines either. Besides the predatory exchange rate on remittances, she now has lived the bad bargain of trading hoped for opportunity for her family with her own life and a list of payments in small tragedies of loss in her family.

The story of Georgetown University’s reckoning with the its actions as a slaveholder and slave seller is the same type of story except under a more coercive commerce when globalism was even more ruthless in finding labor for jobs few wanted at unconscionable pay rates. Prices were put on human life, families were ripped apart, children and adults were chattel. The New York Times detailed how the Catholic priests presiding over Georgetown sold 272 slaves from plantations no longer able to fully support the school to “save” the university and pull it out of debt. The records of the sale and the work of genealogists have allowed them to track down relatives of many of the families that ended up in Louisiana. A great-great granddaughter of one who was sold as a child was able to find his burial place, and she and others are demanding Georgetown do right in partial exchange for its historic wrong by offering scholarships to descendants of that horrid sale. It would seem to be the least they could do.

At the end of these articles, detailing the terrible costs of exploitation, forced or voluntary, it was almost impossible not to have tears in your eyes for them, for ourselves, and for the wretched waste of people ground up in the gears of our unfeeling global economy and the unequal price paid for the wealth of nations and the people who spend it so freely.

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Jindal “No Go!”

Governor Jindal Speaks to Members of Henry Jackson Society in London

Governor Jindal Speaks to Members of Henry Jackson Society in London

New Orleans    It’s not often that almost everyone agrees on something throughout the land and perhaps the globe, but Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal, formerly a Republican presidential hopeful, has truly succeeded in bringing everyone together.  He did so with his crazy, controversial remarks to a conservative group in London named after former Senator Henry Jackson from Washington State.  While there he went on at some length about the fact that there were “no go” zones in cities in Britain, France, and elsewhere that non-Muslims and even the police didn’t go that were functionally ruled by sharia law.

When he left Louisiana, he claimed he was on his way to Europe to drum up business for the state.  Hopefully when he’s talking to corporations over there he will mention that he is on the downside of his last term in office and can’t run again, so it may be safe for them to come to the Bayou State without embarrassment.  Definitely, his sudden notoriety will make it clear that they should wait until he’s gone from the governor’s mansion and the coast is clear.

Fox News jumped on the bandwagon with some of its commentators also parroting the “no go” line.  They have quickly apologized four times on the air and retracted every last line of their remarks. The Mayor of Paris has announced that she is going to sue Fox News for slander, and why not.

In Louisiana, where few agree on anything, both newspapers in New Orleans the daily Advocate and the every once in a while Times-Picayune led with editorials making it clear that Jindal’s hate speech didn’t speak for Louisiana.  They were both embarrassed and horrified by his remarks. The last time they agreed so strenuously was in their assessment that Hurricane Katrina was in fact a bad thing!

It’s easy to understand Jindal’s predicament. He thinks he should be president. Fortunately no one else does. The last poll among Republicans had him in the 2 or 3% range in terms of support and recognition. Jindal’s strategy has been to pretty much leave Louisiana alone, it being Louisiana I can’t say “high and dry,” which is somewhat a good thing, and try to carve out some notice for himself on the far right. He’s willing to go speak to right wing groups and church gatherings that no other candidate will touch.  He’s organizing a prayer thing that seems like it’s a path to perdition itself from the way folks are running away from it. The budget in Louisiana is fabricated on oil and gas revenues so any claims Jindal might have had about finances in the state are long gone and all of his tricks with the numbers are going to haunt the rest of his term and whoever is elected along with the citizens of the state for years.

Jindal’s reaction to all of this? Well, he’s doubled down by releasing a 1700 word press statement in Baton Rouge restating the so-called “evidence” of his “no go” remarks.

I think the only place there is really a “no go” rule is that Jindal is no longer welcome in Europe, especially the United Kingdom and France again.  It seems it won’t be long before Louisiana is also a “no go” spot for Jindal as well.

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Forced Labor and Human Trafficking

photoNew Orleans   At the Fair Grinds Dialogue , Stephanie Hepburn, co-author of Human Trafficking Around the World:  Hidden in Plain Sight, led us through the hall of horrors of forced labor and the little that is done about it around the world.  She and Rita Simon had amassed stories and studies from twenty-four countries to shed light on the estimated, but likely under-counted, 20.9 million victims of trafficking making for a fascinating, engaged, and profoundly depressing evening despite the good spirits of all involved.

            The first point Hepburn made was that despite the fact that when most people think about trafficking, their most vivid image stoked by movies and television, is sex trafficking, and as terrible as that is, it only represents 22% of what most count as trafficking, while forced labor counts for 78% of the almost 21 million victims.  The second point that was inescapable is that despite the fact that trafficking by definition implies movement, forced labor in Hepburn’s argument is defined by what she calls the “deprivation of freedom” or in other words the restriction of mobility, the loss of any ability to leave or flee the situation. 

            The examples are legion and certainly the caste system in India and bonded labor in that country is one of the more notorious, where literally generations of families are held in indentured servitude because of generations of debt, and there is Niger in Africa where slavery is still legal.  The predatory nature of debt though is common in many of the forced labor situations where aspiring immigrants have raised sums from family and friends seeking opportunity in North America or Europe or the Middle East, and instead find themselves working but in situations more akin to captivity with terrible living conditions and a cycle of increasing and inescapable debt with their documents and plane tickets held by their employers or, more accurately, captors. 

            In the United States such cases, when they finally emerge from “plain sight,” are often handled administratively through the Department of Labor as enforcement actions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, rather than as civil suits prosecuted by the Justice Department.  Hepburn cited some progress in recent reports by the State Department that looked not only at other countries challenges and progress in dealing with trafficking but internally at the US situations as well, which was no doubt gratifying partially because her initial interest had been provoked by the labor conditions in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

            Hepburn hopes that more transparency like this will educate prosecutors and judges to take trafficking more seriously because the conditions will be more visible.  She is encouraged by several groups, like Polaris Project, that have done good work.  She cited the Palermo Protocols as progress in forging a more common definition of trafficking that might encourage better enforcement country to country.

            As she answered questions, I could sense both anger and disappointment in the room.  People wanted a happier ending or to feel that somebody, somewhere was doing more about this issue and that it would all work out better, but they weren’t hearing it from Hepburn.  This was a work in the making.   In her book, she minced no words in the conclusion that we need to be more honest about trafficking and start calling a spade a spade and see it as simply “modern slavery.” 

There’s no sleeping easily with slavery once you come to grips with the fact that it is not a thing of past, but very much part of the present.

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The Problem of Remittances and Financial Literacy for Immigrants

ACORN International GSU Team: (left to right) Jennifer Phillips, Fred Brooks, Charlene Davison, Alice Lee, Brittany Burgess, Tim Zdencanovic

Atlanta   I got lucky and five students, now calling themselves the ACORN International Team at Georgia State University, picked as their major project at the GSU School of Social Work helping us develop information and support for our Remittance Justice Campaign.   We assembled at a Nepalese restaurant in an Atlanta neighborhood that is at the epicenter of immigrant and refugee resettlement so that we could compare notes and make out plans for the kind of deep and extensive look at remittance experience and costs in a US-city, similar to what we have done in Toronto and Mexico City previously during this campaign.

Going around the table, the reports were encouraging.   The survey instrument had taken shape.  We were making progress securing translators for the target communities among Burmese, Ethiopians, and Latinos.  Several churches and agencies where the students were doing field placements had already been enlisted to help and were showing some interest and enthusiasm in what we would find.  The team was committed to doing blogs and social networking to communicate and get the word out.  The goals of 100 completed surveys per team member could find us with 500 pieces of rich data to work into a report for ACORN International to release in Atlanta, Social Policy, and wider to engage more discussion about the need to change public policy.  We were on our way.

The one roadblock that kept cropping up in some of the reports was a repeated expression of disbelief, if not outright warning, to the team from the “gatekeepers” that immigrants would refuse to share information about the real costs of remittances with us.  One outfit offered to circulate it for us so that maybe they could extend more legitimacy to our questions about costs and transfer methods.  Another well intentioned soul suggested we not ask specifically what the cost of remittances were or the amount sent but give “ranges” between high and low dollar amounts.

As well meaning as the comments might have been, I was amazed at how clearly they and these notions were actually building the infrastructure for financial exploitation and illiteracy for “new” Americans that would inevitably and predictably lead them now predatory and perilous paths.  By avoiding real questions, discussion and engagement on practice and costs, immigrants and refugees would be relying on “word of mouth” recommendations about “best practices” rather than real data on the least expensive and most secure remittance streams and most reputable, reliable money transfer organizations (MTOs).  The gatekeepers were also assuming and projecting cultural values about the appropriateness of discussions about money that might be more common here, than elsewhere, and, more importantly, were making predictions not premised on field experiences.  They were projecting their own lack of comfort around financial issues onto the students before our team was in the field and could evaluate the credibility of their advice.  All of this was also in the face of information from the team already that those groups receiving resettlement grants from US-based sources almost invariably sent most of the money home immediately to their families left behind, and were also clearly not getting advice on the cheapest ways to make such remittances.  It also goes without saying that the team was not even asking for people’s names on the survey, unless volunteered.

In truth our experience in Canada, Mexico, and around the world where we have collected the data for the Remittance Justice Campaign is the opposite.  People can hardly wait to talk about their experiences in making remittances, especially since the dollars are dear and few can believe how much the middle men are raking off.  The Pew Trust and InterAmerican Bank have also contracted for such surveys repeatedly through “cold calls” and usual methodology without any difficulty.

Why would community organizers and total strangers have found that immigrants are anxious to share remittance experiences, yet some gate keeping agencies been resistant to real discussions with their “clients” about such critical issues?  The answer may lie right there:  seeing them as clients, rather than people, like the rest of us, trying to navigate confusing financial systems with limited information, and desperate for help.  New immigrants and refugees deserve better frankly, and in this area they deserve and have earned justice not continued exploitation.

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Remittances Increase from USA, Progress on Disclosures, and Pushback from MTOs

New Orleans  I badly want to say that there is finally progress in the United States on remittances, which are financial transfers from immigrant families, migrant workers, and others to their families and communities back in their home countries.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the volume of money being remitted has in fact gone up based on the numbers available for 2010.  Our colleague, Manuel Orozco, the foremost US expert on remittances, even predicts an increase of 7% to 8% to Latin America and the Caribbean this year, which is also good news for developing countries.  The toothless World Bank says that the 215 million migrants it estimates around the world are moving $372 billion to developing countries in 2011 and they expect it to hit $399 in 2012 and $467 billion in 2013.  These are huge numbers, especially when one country after another continues to look the other way as migrants and immigrants are gouged by the costs of sending the money through the various money transfer organizations (MTOs).

The much heralded Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that was the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, now running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts took up the matter this year and has promulgated regulations.  Unfortunately, they gummed the problem as well, possibly because of the limits on their authority.  Rather than addressing the predatory nature of the pricing, the final rule which takes effect in February 2013 simply puts forward the standard liberal palliative of better disclosure.  I’ve often shared the limited value of the disclosures in the tax preparation industry for predatory refund anticipation loans (RALs), where the companies (H&R Block, Liberty, Jackson-Hewitt) were all too willing to flaunt their 250% on computer screens and big posters, knowing that the marks (clients?) were so desperate for their money they had no choice but to suck down the charges.  This is the same song now with remittances, simply another verse.

To quote their own website summary, the CFPB rule says the following:

The rules require companies to give a disclosure to a consumer before the consumer pays for a remittance transfer. The disclosure must list:

  • The exchange rate,
  • Fees, and taxes,
  • The amount of money to be delivered abroad.

Companies must also provide a receipt or proof of payment that repeats the information in the first disclosure. The receipt must also tell consumers the date when the money will arrive.

Companies must provide the disclosures in English. Sometimes companies must also provide the disclosures in other languages.

I’ll read the whole 113 pages of the rule in coming days in hopes of finding something more helpful, but I’m afraid that’s the deal.

Outrageously, Miriam Jordan of the Journal reports this new rule “could raise costs for consumers…some experts said.”  She then quotes someone from Wells Fargo, which is an embarrassment of a bank on almost every count,

Daniel Ayala, head of global remittance services at Wells Fargo, praised the rule for creating a level playing field.  But he cautioned that, ‘there are details that could…ultimately result in limiting access, higher costs and confusion.’

Are you kidding me?!?  Finally having a wee bit of transparency (in English which doesn’t necessarily help!) and a receipt is going to raise costs.   Wells Fargo and their banking and MTO buddies simply have no shame.  I hope these hypocrites made a big fat contribution to Clinton’s Global Initiative, because they certainly don’t mind exploiting the living bejesus out of these immigrant and migrant families.

In Canada the bill to cap costs at 5% (remember that is the World Bank and G-8 goal!) is making progress.  More endorsements have come forward from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the University of Toronto Student Union.  There are also encouraging discussions with the Liberals, who may actually join with the NDP in a joint bill.  I’m holding my breath.  Somewhere developing countries and the workers trying to help their families have to get a real break on costs, not just a piece of paper with some numbers on it.

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No One Regulating Remittances

 030402orozco1[1]Toronto            Preparing to meet with the ACORN International “intern army,” as I call them, at George Brown College today, I couldn’t help but laugh while using the Starbucks internet (thanks, fellas!) when I read that Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase was over at Davos complaining about “banker bashing” and France’s President Sarkozy was forced to gently remind him that more than 10,000,000 people were still looking for work because of their shenanigans.  Whose on first, what’s on second? 

            Which brings me to banks and money transfer organizations at the heart of ACORN International’s Remittance Justice Camapign, where it turns out that almost know one is on any base at all.  It seems no wonder that the charges banks and MTOs have larded onto immigrant families efforts to send money to relatives in the home country are so predatory, because from our early research it appears that there is virtually no effort to regulate the movement of these payments at all.  Of course there are some new post 9-11 efforts to hand slap some transactions to slow down terrorism, but nothing that would pay more than lip service to the predatory charges, fees, and exchange rates tacked on to remittances (see our report and sign the petition of support at www.remittancejustice.org). 

            National central banks are nominally in charge of regulating the kind of banks that Dimon thinks are being bashed, but have been silent or stumbling at best in even looking at the problems of consumers and costs.  The United States Federal Reserve Bank has proven this time and time in so many areas of banking endeavor that this should come as no surprise.  The Atlanta region is piloting an international automatic clearing house function so that businesses can move money more easily to Europe, but nothing for consumers.  In Canada and the United States there is a patchwork quilt of confusion, where money transfer organizations like Western Union, MoneyGram and the scores of other outfits that have sprung up are nominally under the authority of individual states or provinces, many of which do little other than collect operating fees, but certainly don’t pretend to regulate these outfits and their cost structure.  In some cases they worry that they may share authority for regulations, so the quandary is even more pronounced.  The situation is more than a mess, it’s a pathetic tragedy costing immigrant working families billions that simply end up in the pockets of the much maligned financial industry.

            The response to our inquires from BMO, the Bank of Montreal, has been indicative.  After first pretending that they had already met our demands for charges not to exceed 5% by deftly arguing that if someone remitted thousands of dollars the costs would be lowered, despite the fact that most remittances are in the $100 level, they then tried to claim that they were working on costs.  When we asked to meet and hear the progress, they then claimed it was “proprietary,” which might be a euphemism for “predatory” or could simply a fancy word for “buzz off.”

            We seem to have little choice but to open up another front to move for regulations wherever we can get a hearing, while continuing to press the MTOs and bankers to do the right thing, which as Chase’s Dimon seems to indicate has about the same chance as a snowball in hell of moving bankers and their buddies.

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