Suspend Remittance Charges for Philippines Typhoon Recovery

o_keeley_tigra_500x279New Orleans   There was a front page story in the Wall Street Journal about the fact that more and more of the remittance business from banks and money transfer organizations like Western Union and MoneyGram is between countries in Latin America rather than from US and Canadian immigrants to Latin America.  Western Union in 10 years has seen US-based transfers drop from more than half of its business to only 30% of the $79 billion it moves.

            What I have not seen, that I should have seen, and correct me if I’m wrong, so ACORN International will know and Google can get right, is any indication that Western Union, MoneyGram or any major US-based bank has suspended remittance fees for immigrant families and relatives in the US who are trying to send desperately need money to the Philippines in the wake of the terrible typhoon disaster the country is experiencing.   I heard from Judy Duncan of ACORN Canada yesterday where our Remittance Justice Campaign is a major emphasis, that some banks had announced that they were suspending fees temporarily to help out.   In the US, we may be reading about a $13 billion dollar JPMorgan Chase settlements, but we are not reading about banks or MTOs stepping up in this huge Katrina-level disaster.

            And, in the Philippines this matters even more than in most countries.   Some of the best remittance policies in the world exist in the Philippines, because, like it or not, exporting labor is a linchpin in their national economy, so before issuing a work visa overseas, the government instructs traveling workers in how to handle transfers at the lowest possible cost.  With workers all over the globe, and all over the US in hospitals and other occupations, a suspension of remittance fees during this crisis even for a couple of weeks could mean many more millions that could go to direct relief, family-to-family, person-to-person.

            ACORN International is calling on banks and MTOs in the US to immediately suspend remittance fees so that money can move immediately to families in perilous circumstances desperate for aid from their families.   This is the season for Thanksgiving and Christmas.   Rather than just bowing our heads, let’s stand up straight and demand that banks, Western Union, and the rest do right and do it right now.

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.

Finding Friends on Microfinance, but Western Union Not so Much

Phoenix 3462_WesternUnioncampaignimage Winning any kind of global financial justice for low-and-moderate income families is admittedly a slog, but misery loves company, and I cannot resist keeping you in the loop as ACORN International pushes forward on these campaigns.

Good news first.  Our report, “Mega Troubles for Microfinance” www.acorninternational.org, picked up some friends in high places, which felt very nice, though we will have to see if it develops into real progress.  A letter from the Swiss international development agency indicated that they were in agreement with us that microfinance does not reduce poverty, and in line with our recommendations they had already scaled back involvement.  They were still hopeful about microcredit, though we are not sure what that really means other than saying that the poor should save, which is not exactly a development program.  Similarly when we issued our report the head of the United Kingdom parliamentary committee which has oversight over development joined in our argument heartily and indicated that they will take the report up more seriously now that the summer is past.  All very encouraging since we feared that we might burn at the stake for heresy!

On the other hand there is Western Union.  A long, as these things go, direct conference call between leaders of ACORN International and ACORN Canada with representatives from the Loveland, Colorado based king of remittances was difficult and indecisive.  Western Union conceded that there fees were not the 5 to 6% they claimed in their correspondence, but tried to argue that they were transparent nonetheless even though perhaps not fully.  If you can follow that sentence, you must have been behind the looking glass with us.  Their primary argument continued to rest in a defense of competition, which essentially is to say that they charge what the market will bear, until the market changes, and in response to ACORN International’s three reports on these questions tried to argue that there were 16,000 remittance channels so our dozen countries might just be out of luck.  We have pleaded with them for a direct face-to-face meeting in hopes of making real progress, and they agreed to consider it, but promised nothing.

Meanwhile we are pursuing meetings of the major countries who are soon looking at development issues to see if there might be a way to push ahead on financial justice for the global poor at those forums.  Optimism is boundless, but reality continues to intrude.

Ripping off Mexican & Caribbean Migrant Workers in Canada

Buenocurrency-transfer-compareds Aires One of the flash points in the USA immigration reform debate continues to be over the demand from farmers for help in their fields from migrant agricultural workers.  Recently  they left the Republican (and Obama Administration) consensus in droves as US-farmer organizations and Congresspeople bridled at the fact that employers, i.e. farmers, would have to pay steep fines for hiring undocumented workers.  The so-called bracero program has long been out of business in the US, which used to bring up seasonal workers from Mexico into the fields of California, Texas, and Arizona, and from the Caribbean to help in tobacco, cranberry, and other harvests in the Northeastern states.

ACORN International crack researchers led by Carleton University (Ottawa) volunteer, Amanda Sullivan, and ramroded by ACORN International and Edinburgh University (Scotland) super-summer intern, Melanie Craxton, stumbled onto a huge program though in Canada while researching remittance ripoffs as part of ACORN International and its federated partners on-going Remittance Justice Campaign (www.remittancejustice.org).   The Canadian SAWP is not an armed strike team, but 20,000 migrant workers from Mexico and the Caribbean Islands who are recruited through bi-national agreements and shipped up to the fields of Canada, largely in British Columbia and southern Ontario, as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.  Needless to say conditions are regularly reported as substandard and exploitive by our long-time partners, the UFCW and its agricultural workers organizing program which has been in the fields for years with these workers.

In fact the Canadian government extracts a 25% of wages share for taxes and the like which will never benefit these workers who will return home after a maximum of eight (8) months in the field.  Neither does the Canadian government seem to care much about how much money they actually go home with even though ostensibly that is one of the goals of this cooperative labor exchange.  The workers are in fact even chosen according to the SAWP criteria because they have stable families, and that means invariably they send significant remittances (about 50% of wages while in Canada) back home to their families.

The money transfer organizations of choice according to our researchers interviews are Western Union and a smaller, somewhat cheaper company called Vigo.  Either way a huge chunk of their checks are extracted by these MTOs, way over the 5% maximum demand that ACORN International has made as part of the Remittance Justice Campaign and that Canada as part of the G-8 has claimed to adopt as a world standard.

Talking to SAWP representatives though was like visiting Mars.  Yes, Canada collected its taxes.  Yes, the migrant workers made remittances home.  No, the governmental representatives had no idea how much was extracted by the MTOs of the checks, despite these bi-national agreements with Mexico and Caribbean countries.  It is impossible to escape the core immorality, even venality, of this predatory governmental operation.  The Canadian government gets migrant help for its agricultural enterprises, profits from taxes that can’t benefit the workers, and then turns a blind eye as predatory fees are extracted from the laborers before they return home with what little is left.

ACORN International and its federated partners like ACORN Canada, ACORN Mexico, and ACORN Dominican Republic, have stumbled onto a scandal and are busily preparing demands to force immediate change in these practices along the lines we have continued to make in recent months for cost caps and desperately needed regulations.  Without a doubt this is an outrage that demands the authorities finally listen and act!

Remittance Disclosures and Western Union Babble Speak

NeDSCN1016w Orleans ACORN International’s global Remittance Justice Campaign (www.remittancejustice.og) continues to confront new, amazing, and mysterious challenges as ACORN Canada pushes forward in Ottawa and British Columbia.

In a meeting won by actions at the ACORN Canada convention six weeks ago with top officials of the Finance Ministry our negotiators efforts to discuss the need for regulation of remittances to prevent predatory pricing and achieve needed equity, transparency, and fundamental fairness was greeted about the same way as if we had started cursing loudly at the front of the church.  We had offended fundamental, conservative Stephen Harper government dogma about so-called “free markets” and laissez faire rapacious capitalism by banks and money transfer organizations, especially if the rip-off occurred with migrant workers and immigrant, “new Canadians” as they are called.

The Finance Ministry turned the conversation to “disclosures” in a patty cake, kiss-your-cousin shot across the ACORN bow.  Disclosures just won’t get it done, but….  There are some critical things that could be achieved by some real disclosures that include:

  • simple language
  • base rate from remitting institution to country for bank customer
  • base rate from remitting institution to country for non-bank customer
  • transparent fees at receiving end if any or a guarantee that there are none.
  • disclosure of exchange rate at time of remittance transfer
  • disclosure of pricing regime compared other electronic transfer procedures to prove this is not discriminatory pricing

We might save billions just by letting that little light shine.IMG_1073-1

On the western side of Canada an action by ACORN British Columbia demanding remittance justice provoked an email response from Englwood, Colorado, a Denver suburb, and headquarters of Western Union.  Spokesman there told the Burnaby News-Leader:

“’Many people worldwide have no access to formal financial services. We invest in rural areas and urban locations alike to offer consumers an option to send and receive remittances and better manage their finances.’  Increased consumer choices for sending money have led to lower costs across the industry, the company said.”

Wow!  Here is what that statement translates to in normal everyday English:

“We enjoy near monopoly advantages in many global markets because there are no other financial service alternatives, so we charge whatever we damned well please to send and receive remittances, because we can.  The only reason we will lower costs is if a competitor crowds into our monopoly market and forces us to have to do so.”

DSCN1019At ACORN I guess Western Union thought it was important to remind us that with no regulations and little competition, rapacious corporate greed can pretty much stand on its hind legs and flip off its customers, their organizations, and entire limp wristed, uncaring governments at their whim and will.  Hello!

A Corrupt Credit Business Model Travels to Chile and Brazil

New Orleans Cred

ODECU of Chile

ODECU of Chile

it card scams are the bad penny perfected in the United States that is turning up now elsewhere in the world.   These practices are not the foul play of bad actors as predatory lenders always claim, but intrinsic elements of corrupt, exploitive business models.  The economic success stories in Brazil and Chile now seem threatened by the avarice of casual corporate corruption matched as usual with light to non-existent regulation and consumer protection regimes.

In Brazil the debt to income ratio has risen from 22% to 40% in only five years from 2006 to 2011 according to a study quoted by Alexei Barrionuevo in The New York Times. In Chile in 7 years the ratio has goen to 70% according to the Central Bank.   There’s no question the model is predatory with interest annual interest rates reaching 220% in Brazil and no limits anywhere it seems.   The situation is especially intense at retail chain, freely issuing cards to working and moderate income customers to access basic consumer goods, and then routinely adjusting the terms and levels of the interest rates on the debt without any notice to the customer.

These cards were supported by transnational banking big boys like UK’s HSBC and Spain’s Santander and Itau-Unibanco, all of which, especially HSBC, absolutely knew better, but couldn’t resist the rip-off, knowing that they could get away with it.  When confronted by the prosecutor’s office in Brazil, the banks ignored appeals to fully compensate customers.

It was shocking to read that there are no only no limits to the level of interest rates in Chile, but also no way for an individual to be able to file for personal bankruptcy and get their act together.  Unfortunately, when ripped, there’s no way for them to run – or reorganize.  Stefan Larenas of the Organization of Consumers and Users of Chile, speaking about the Equifax-owned, unregulated Dicom credit score outfit in that country, was quoted ominously that, “If you are in Dicom, if you are not in hell, you are on the way there.  It is a true social stigma here.”  Seems a bad score not only bars you from any future loans, but is also seen as a legitimate reason to block you from future employment, creating a debtor’s prison without walls.

Predatory financial injustice is a global issue with most central banks simply burying their heads in the sand, just as our Remittance Justice Campaign has uncovered everywhere, and leaving workers and families nothing but fresh meet for corporate crime.