Demanding a Suspension of Remittance Fees During Disasters

_85611725_e26ea287-55ce-49b3-8ea6-b02ceba61ef7Newark   An 8.3 level earthquake hit Chile in recent days. The quake lasted three minutes. The tsunami carried boats from the port onto city streets along the coast. One million people were evacuated. Over 100,000 continue not to have electricity. Many are displaced. Amazingly, the death count has been relatively minor for such a tragedy with only eleven reported at this point. Many believe this may be due to progress in governmental response and the institution of tougher building codes since a 2010 earthquake killed over 500.

Several years ago when the tsunami hit Japan the focus was huge, damage immense, and attention riveting. Many are just coming back to their homes three years later in the worst impacted areas. Nuclear plants are still under observation and the existence of the plants themselves and the threats of climate change are heated debates.

In a global community what is the best response? Many will be moved to help, but families will feel special obligations whether it is Chile now, Japan then, Katrina ten years ago, or Aceh in Indonesia.

Sending money costs money. Big money. Even the Economist in a recent editorial and article chided the lack of progress by the G-8 and World Bank on reducing the fees to the 5% cap that was supposed to have been achieved years ago. They claim the average is 7.5% but that figure has little credibility given how much it leaves out of the calculations. There are regular reports of technological breakthroughs and new competitors, but many institutions have raised their rates claiming the costs of money laundering and terrorism legislation requires more scrutiny. The Economist called for reductions across the board, and ACORN’s Remittance Justice Campaign has long made that demand.

Can there be any better argument for reductions than disasters like Chile? A number of banks in Canada and the United States lowered or waived fees for transfers after the Japanese tsunami. Western Union and MoneyGram even said the right things for a bit. Where are they now?

Many are joining in a call for Western Union particularly to lead the way by reducing the cost of transfers to Chile during this crisis and time of displacement. Any of us that can need to raise our voices now.

ACORN and many other organizations have begun online petition drives among other tactics to get the message to the CEO of Western Union in Colorado to act now. Do whatever you can and sign the petition with us.

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How About a Better Deal for Philippines Disaster Relief from US Banks & MTOs?

Q113_Wu_Com_Typhoon_V1_Facebook_1200x627_EN_USNew Orleans  The typhoon that devastated large parts of the Philippines, in a Hurricane Katrina like disaster many are seeing as part of what we can expect regularly in the future from climate change,  is inspiring protests by poor countries at the UN Climate Change Conference and some corporate social responsibility, but, sadly nowhere near enough, especially in the United States.  

            Some banks have stepped up to do the right thing and have waived all transfer fees, most for a month from mid-November until mid-December.   There may be more on the honor roll, but from what I’ve found so far, it includes two banks in Canada, the BMO Bank of Montreal and the Royal Bank of Scotland, there and presumably elsewhere, Wells Fargo is the only bank in the US that has stepped up, and the Noor Islamic Bank in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.   That’s all ACORN International has been able to locate.

Of the scores of money transfer organizations, Western Union has been the surprising hero here, though with exceptions.   In Canada, they are doing transfers to the Philippines for $1.00.   Interestingly, the Western Union website in the US seems to have waived fees completely, though it’s a mystery to me why they are charging a loony in Canada and nada in the States.  Regardless, cheers to them for doing what they are doing since MoneyGram, the other huge MTO, is charging $5 for a $100 transfer, which is hardly a bargain, and shows little heart in this crisis.

But, what’s up with US-based banks?  Why is Wells Fargo the only one of the big boys standing tall in the face of this tragedy?  Where are Chase, Bank of America, Citi, and the rest?

And, even more puzzling, especially in wake of the $1 charge by Western Union in Canada, are we starting to find out the real cost for these folks to do transfers?  

But, I digress.   The important thing now is for all of us to ask our banks to waive all transfer fees to the Philippines so that there can be real resources and financial help for typhoon victims.   Raise your voice for lowering the fees!

 

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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.

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Western Union and Money Mart Lobby Up to Fight Remittance Justice

New Orleans   Finally, the big-time money transfer organizations and the gazillions in predatory profits for moving money for migrant workers and immigrant families are at least hearing our footprints coming after them in the distance.

Several months ago Ontario NDP Member of Parliament Jagmeet Singh introduced a bill we had collaborated in writing under the provincial consumer protection statutes that would achieve the 5% ceiling on costs related to transfers supported by all of the G-8 countries and the World Bank.  Realistically, since the NDP is the minority party, it is hard to get a bill passed.  In Ontario lobby registration rules require lobbyists to register expressly on which bill or bills they are retained.  Bells and whistles went off for all of us in recent days when two lobbyists, jointly employed by Western Union and Money Mart, registered specifically on our 5% cap bill.

The obvious question was whether or not these slick operators had already started putting the squeeze on the McGinty government on our bill?  In the question period in the Provincial Parliament, MPP Singh asked the questions.  The answer was a non-answer and a classic runaround response, that I will share here with all of you in case for your personal and political enjoyment.

It’s on!

CONSUMER PROTECTION

Mr. Jagmeet Singh: My question is to the Minister of Consumer Services. In May, I introduced Bill 98 to stop large companies from charging unfair international money transfer fees. Now we have learned that the two biggest money transfer companies operating in Canada, MoneyGram and Western Union, have registered to lobby both the Ministry of Consumer Services and the Ministry of Finance on this bill.

Has the minister met with these advocates for these powerful companies, and what are they saying to her?

Hon. Margarett R. Best: I thank the member for the question. Certainly, consumer protection is an important issue for our government, and we are reviewing the bill that the member has put forward. As always, we’re reviewing this bill with a view to improving consumer protection in the province of Ontario. It is important to note as well that the federal government has a role to play in protecting consumers with regard to federally regulated financial services.

The ministry continues to analyze the bill, and we continue to look at options to improve consumer protection for Ontario consumers with regard to remittance fees. This is an issue which certainly impacts a great number of people in the province of Ontario, including myself and many of us in this Legislature—I would no doubt think that—and it’s an issue that also impacts many people who are new Canadians, so this is an issue which we find very important to us.

The Speaker (Hon. Dave Levac): Supplementary?

Mr. Jagmeet Singh: Again to the Minister of Consumer Services: When Ontarians send their hard-earned money to relatives overseas, multinational companies should not be allowed to siphon off as much as they please. Now, powerful US-based companies are fighting against a bill that would protect Ontarians.

Ontarians need to know: Will the minister take action to protect Ontarians from predatory money transfer companies, or will she capitulate to the high-paid lobbyists for these US companies?

Hon. Margarett R. Best: I would like the member opposite to know that this is an issue on which we continue to listen to all the interested parties, all the interested stakeholders, and certainly our consumers in the province of Ontario.

This issue, as I said, is a very complicated issue. There are many complicated factors that require a very thorough review of the bill. Because of the complex nature of this issue, we continue to review this bill carefully, the proposed legislation that has been put forward by the member opposite.

We continue to look at other ways to protect consumers in the province of Ontario, which is an issue which is very important to me and to our government.

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A Break in the Remittance Campaign Comes from the Somalian Hawala Crisis!

Hawala in Minneapolis, St. Paul

New Orleans   ACORN International’s Remittance Justice Campaign has begun to pick up steam.  A private member’s bill to cap rates has now been introduced in Queen’s Park for the Ontario provincial government.  Similar efforts are being pushed in British Columbia and later this year legislators have committed to introducing measures in Honduras and perhaps even Mexico once the election fever settles down today.   The hardest nut to crack has been in the United States, but we may have a break from an unexpected quarter:  32,000 Somalians in Minnesota.

The failed state of Somalia in the wake of its civil war sent refugees around the world, including the United States, and particularly the Twin Cities area.  There is currently no banking system in Somalia which makes transmitting remittances from relatives in the USA back to desperate relatives in Somalia very difficult.  Somalians have been using the largely informal hawala system which is a critical piece of the money transfer system especially in India (where it is illegal), other south Asian countries, and some parts of Africa.  According to an excellent story by Miriam Jordan and Erica E. Phillips in the Wall Street Journal, about $100 million is moving through federally licensed US-based Somali hawalas.  ACORN International had done a report recommending the expansion of hawalas because their cost is usually less than 1.5% rather than the more predatory pricing of Western Union, MoneyGram, and of course the banks.  Most money transfer organizations (MTOs) are licensed at the state and provincial level, so it was a revelation to us to find that hawalas were under federal jurisdiction and licensing in the USA, contrary to our earlier research.

The crisis is that mainline US-based banks in the wake of the banking regulations implemented post-9/11 ostensibly in the name of homeland security, have increasingly been refusing to handle transactions for hawalas.   “U.S. banks are permitted to deal with hawals, typically small businesses that have anti-money laundering, reporting, and record keeping obligations in the U.S.”  This is unique since many hawalas have operated for centuries on the basis of trust and personal handling with no records.  U.S. banks are bridling now because of concerns that the money might be funneled to terrorist groups.  Families are demonstrating, especially in Minnesota because their families are “starving” without being able to receive the remittances.

Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) is drafting legislation to deal with this crisis.  Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has attempted to deal with this issue in the past.   Scott Rembrandt of the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes has argued that the hawalas should not be shunned, which raises hopes as well.  According to the Journal he says that the Treasury “doesn’t assume money transmitters present a uniform or unacceptably high risk of money laundering, terrorist financing or sanctions violations.”  Such a position would seem to point, not surprisingly, at the larger banks like Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp as being overly cautious and therefore squeezing Somalians and others desperate for reasonable relief for high costs and for workable solutions.

Deborah Bortner, a regulator in Washington state, correctly notes that without a system that works legally to transmit money, “it’s going to go underground,” which is exactly what is happening with many hawalas around the world and precisely one of the arguments that ACORN International has made about the need for regulations in this area.   We can only hope that this crisis will finally force all of our voices to be heard and allow progress for immigrants families and migrant workers who are desperate for remittance justice.

Ad from Western Union steering folks away from hawalas

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Editorial Support Lines up for Remittance Cap in Key Ontario Papers

ACORN Canada fighting for Justice in Remittances

Delhi   With the introduction of a member’s bill in the provincial parliament of Ontario by New Democratic Party MPP Jagmeet Singh from Toronto to amend the Consumer Act to put a 5% hard cap ceiling on remittances as requested by ACORN International and ACORN Canada as part of the Remittance Justice Campaign, support is lining up for the bill.  The influential Toronto Sun editorialized in favor and the Ottawa Citizen joined in the call for support for the measure.

The Ottawa Citizen had an interesting take with a conservative twist:

The best way to drive costs down is to encourage competition. For some recipient countries, new players and technologies have led to better prices. For others, there’s an oligopoly and high prices. It seems unlikely that the most punitive fees will come down without regulation.

In 2009, the G8 vowed to bring global costs for remittances down to five per cent by 2014. Market-based approaches, such as greater transparency in fee structures, are crucial to this effort. But they haven’t brought fees down very far.

The Citizen got it.  The standard business ideology may make predatory practices and glib assurances standard operating procedure, but when such rapaciousness cannot be impacted by fairness, it is time for legislation and regulation.

The Toronto Star started perhaps in a better place of understanding the importance of remittances and the cost structure, but they also made a powerful point:  all parties needed to support the legislation.  In other words this is too important to allow narrow partisanship to stand in the way and allow Money Gram and Western Union to fleece the pockets of migrant and immigrant workers.

No other province caps remittance fees, but the idea is no different in principle from limiting the interest charged on payday loans to prevent low-income earners from being gouged. Ontario did that in 2008.

All parties at Queen’s Park should back Singh’s bill. It would be an excellent step toward helping out some of the hardest working and most deserving people among us.

The same arguments could be made throughout the world, but for now the momentum is building in Canada where the leadership is, and the quick editorial support puts the pressure on for change!

Check out ACORN International for more information on remittance campaigns and how you can help.

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