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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Waste Land

New Orleans This had to be a hot ticket! waste-land-poster-691x1024

Waste Land was an Audience Award Best Documentary (Waste Land Trailerat the prestigious 2010 Sundance Film Festival focusing on a powerful confluence of art and poverty and the lives of waste pickers in one of the world’s largest landfills, Jardim Gramacho, outside of the magical city of Rio de Janeiro. Given ACORN International’s work in organizing the same kind of recyclers in the Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, Delhi, and elsewhere, I could hardly wait to see how the catadores might be different than our cartoneros in Buenos Aires or rag pickers in India, so I jumped at a notice in the paper that the movie was showing at Zietgiest, a film center in downtown New Orleans.

It turned out I was crowded in with 7 other stalwarts in a cold and cavernous warehouse space on Aretha Haley (old Dryades Avenue) right off the CDB, but so what…it was wildly worth it in some strange ways that were surprising to me.

As a disclaimer I should admit that the documentary produced by our friends in Mumbai called Waste which follows a couple of ACORN International’s waste pickers is my personal favorite, but I’m open minded. The work is hard and it couldn’t be easier than to see it sitting in New Orleans no matter where, rather than schlepping down to Rio and walking the turf with the pickers.

My first reaction was one that I’m sure few would have: I couldn’t believe how good the pickers had it in Rio! They were gloved up, well shod, and easily visible to the truck drivers with their bright vests. They reportedly made between $25 and $30 USD per day, which also makes them the crème de la crème of the world’s waste pickers. In India our pickers make $3 to $5 and winning gloves and protection of any kind has been a struggle everywhere.

I might also be the only viewer who sat up straight and was ready to roar and applaud when I could see their association t-shirts and realized that the main character of the movie (other than the artist of course!) was one of the co-founders and leader of the association of pickers of Jardim Gramacho! The documentary was straightforward and respectful of the organization, which had undoubtedly been the driving force hopefully winning the protections I had noticed so vividly.

I guess I should admit that the movie is not about any of this and I dare say, if it were, it would not have been such a big winner and audience favorite, but it was nice to see that they didn’t blink stutter, or step back. The real theme was that a hotshot photographer/artist named Vik Muniz, a decent and talented guy with a riveting tale of his own journey from lower income Sao Paolo to a nice studio that looked like it was in the Williamsburg area and definitely in Brooklyn, decided to combine his art with an agenda of raising money and making some life changing differences in a few lives. Taio, the head of the union, became one of the half-dozen pickers paid to come out of the dump for a couple of weeks to pose and finish portraits of themselves in classic art book poses decorated with recyclable materials from Jardim Gramacho. The pickers were almost unreal in the sense of how physically beautiful they were, as if anyone could even wander into the heart of one of the worst garbage dumps in the world and find models. In London at the auction of some of the finished art, Muniz kids Taio at one point of looking like Lenny Kravitz, if you get my drift. This is art taken from life, not life coming to art.

Nonetheless, the movie is less about poverty than having poverty as the backdrop. It is about transformation and seeks to tell a story of how the process of producing this unusual art changed their lives in some cases forever. So though the association was also part of the background for the documentary, there was no pretense that anyone’s lives were changed, or perhaps modified, by the experience and the transcending gift of copies of their own portraits and art, than these half-dozen, and that was OK. The film pretended no different. Muniz and his art raised $250,000 the final credits said and the exhibit in the Rio museum was seen by a million Brazilians, and that’s some powerful art joining with social change. Furthermore, the money seems to have gone to the work of the Association in trying to find a future for other pickers since the land fill is projected to close in 2012.

It’s a movie. It’s not organizing.

But it’s a great movie merging art and organizing and an artist without much pretense who loves the life he’s build and brings joy and hope to the enterprise. \

Waste Land deserves to have a big audience not a handful here and there, and I hope it finds one, while I try to figure out how to use these tools to build the work and the art of organizing.

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