Credit unions are democratic
I applaud Fitz Jackson for his motion in Parliament to investigate the fees that banks have been charging for the various transactions. Not only are some of these charges exorbitant, the average bank customer has no other appeal but to do so through their representatives in Parliament. But the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament should not have been extended this to credit unions because all co-operatives are democratic entities.
The general meeting, whether annual or special, is the highest authority in any co-operative, which includes credit unions. The general meeting can overrule any decision of the board of directors, including charges on transactions, unless required by law. Indeed the board of directors or managing committee rules the credit unions between general meetings only.
But once the general meeting starts it is the members in attendance who are the bosses. Each member of any co-operative, including credit unions, owns the society's assets equally. The annual general meeting votes on the dividends, if there is a surplus; receives reports from the committees and conducts elections. Special general meetings are for specific issues.
There was a time when every credit union member knew that the ultimate authority of their society was the meeting of the members. Indeed, there was a time when all members of Parliament knew this also. In the early days, applicants for membership in a credit union had to be trained for six months before joining.
It was the Roman Catholic Church that started credit unions in Jamaica and also started credit union education. Included in this training would be everything about how a credit union is run and why it was important to repay loans so that other members could get a chance to borrow. Much of the credit union training in the early years was about morality and conscience.
The credit unions came about mainly because in 1941 a poor black man could not get a bank loan. Most of the descendants of the estate owners were still in Jamaica and would not make their mass exodus until the 1970s when they parted company with Michael Manley's attempts at Democratic Socialism.
And because the poor black people could not approach the banks they had to go to loan sharks who charged up to 75 per cent interest. But as the credit unions became larger the banks changed their policies. So credit union members would not bother to go to the credit committee of their credit union to convince them why they needed a loan, and fill out loan application forms in duplicate, when it was easier to get loans from the banks.
And this was the excuse by the leadership of many credit unions to stop the credit union education altogether. I applaud those credit unions that have continued the training of their members even if it is not as long as six months as in earlier times. But with less credit union education, in the last 60 years, many members do not understand the importance of attending annual and special general meetings.
Indeed, many times credit unions have difficulty in finding a quorum — which is 100 members if there are a thousand or more members of the credit union, and a quorum of somewhat less if the membership is less than a thousand. In some credit unions, directors get their friends among the membership to attnd the AGMs to re-elect them.
Indeed, most credit unions members do not care about who gets elected to serve on any of the standing committees as long as they can get a good loan and there are benefits such as housing and health insurance. As a former director of two credit unions, and having served in other positions in credit unions, my suspicion from experience is that many board members are happy when most credit union members do not attend meetings.
Are they afraid that if the members know their rights they will attend meetings and vote them out of office? Are they afraid that they will question many things? Why did they not tell the parliamentary committee that they have their own built-in democratic mechanisms to deal with exorbitant fees? Was it because by doing so members would know their rights and would go to general meetings to vote?
Many members of Parliament need to go through a crash course on the constitution and certain laws. It is one thing to have citizens make certain mistakes regarding laws, but quite another when the mistake comes from a parliamentarian. Some years ago, a female senator, then in Opposition now in government, spoke in the Senate about changing the national dish because salt fish is imported and sometimes difficult to get these days.
I was at pains to point out, as I had done several times before, that the Code of National Symbols does not speak to a national dish at all, but a national fruit, which is the ackee. I was also at pains to point out that ackee and salt fish is not the national dish just because it is mixed with the national fruit. And humming bird soup (if there is such a thing) is not the national soup. I applaud Merrick Needham for being the only other person, I am told, to publicly explain to people that Jamaica has no national dish.
So you might very well ask, why make a big thing about ackee and national symbols? And I answer the question by asking one: What about someone taking a test at school or for a job? The wrong answer can cost them marks, which can cost them their pass mark. That will always be my concern about 'simple' mistakes like these. What if the affected students are related to you?
Business students who study the various types of business entities must wonder why Parliament would intervene in the matter of fees in credit unions. The reason is that they know more credit union principles and law than many parliamentarians.
But once again, my commendations to Fitz Jackson for bringing up the matter of exorbitant fees in banks, where customers have absolutely no say in the matter, unlike the credit unions where they can do something about it.