Innovations in tough times

Michael BURKE

Thursday, May 15, 2014    

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THE Annual General Meeting of the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League takes place this weekend. The last time that I was a delegate to the League was in 2012, and I am not a delegate this year either. But I can write my ideas and hope that the AGM will not ignore them, even if that hope is like wanting a snowball in hell to remain frozen. But, before that, a few facts of history and general knowledge of credit unions are in order.

It was the Young Men's Sodality of the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Cathedral that first organised a credit union in Jamaica. That was in 1941. The Sodality Credit Union was not the first to be registered in Jamaica, but it was nevertheless the first one to be organised. And it was the Sodality Credit Union that organised the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League in 1942.

The credit union movement came about in Jamaica because, at the time, it was impossible for a poor black man to get a loan for

a commercial bank. The very poor in Jamaica had to rely on 'loan sharks', who wanted 75 per cent interest. In the early days of credit union, potential members had to go to classes for six months before joining.

This unfortunately was the excuse that some were evidently seeking so that the credit union members would be unaware of their rights. All credit unions are co-operatives and as such all of the assets of the business are owned in common. Many, if not most credit union members in Jamaica believe that their credit union is a bank where they are nothing but customers.

All credit unions are democratic. The general meetings are the highest authority in the credit unions. The elected boards are in charge of the credit unions between general meetings only, whether annual or special. This means that if members do not like the loan policy, for example, a majority of credit union members at a general meeting can overrule the policy stipulated by the board. But in many credit unions there are only feeble attempts, if any, to teach credit union members these things.

Credit unions are really meetings of workers. Today, many credit union board members come to general meetings wearing suits as if it were another sort of meeting. Is this being done to make the members feel that they should be in awe of the board? I do not know, but sometimes I think so.

In the early days, the members of the Young Men's Sodality would ride their bicycles as far as they could go to teach credit union principles. And where they could not go on bicycle they rode with their moderator Father John Peter Sullivan to all parts of Jamaica to teach credit union principles. The idea was to empower the very poor according to the Roman Catholic understanding of the scriptural tenet 'love thy neighbour as thyself'.

By the late 1940s even middle-class people started to join credit unions. The banks, therefore, made it easier for al people to get loans, and it goes without saying that this was without the education that credit unions demanded at that time. So eventually credit unions lessened the education time, and today many if not most credit unions have abandoned credit union education as part of the initiation for new members.

There was no Co-operative Act of Jamaica in 1941 and, indeed, that would not come about until 1950. The credit unions were, therefore, registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act. Because of the mergers today there are no credit unions still in existence that were originally registered before 1950.

The credit union league consists of all credit unions in Jamaica. All credit unions fall under the Co-operative Act of Jamaica. Credit unions are financial co-operatives while the other types of co-operatives are known as service co-operatives. There is a National Union of Co-operative Societies (NUCS), which comprises some of the registered co-operatives in Jamaica.

The credit union league is a member organisation of NUCS. The Jamaica Fisherman's Co-operative Union is also a member of NUCS.

One of the principles of co-operatives is to have co-operation among co-operatives. This is why there is a credit union league, a National Union of Co-operative Societies and Fishermen's Co-operative Union.

The credit union league should use its surplus, which comes from dues from the member credit unions and from shares in business (including Radio Jamaica) to finance service co-operatives to provide jobs for credit union members. Once jobs are provided with the help of the credit unions those receiving such jobs should be required to save in at least one of the island's credit unions, thus improving the borrowing power of the members.

A group of us are in the process of setting up a benevolent society that will be an employment agency and membership will be open only to credit union members. The benevolent society will seek to buy shares of businesses that will employ members of the society. And we plan to be a part of the tourism industry by providing services and renting houses for bed and breakfast hotels in the first instance.

While benevolent societies come under the Friendly Societies Act, they are really co-operatives in practice. This benevolent society will also teach co-operative principles. Since it is next to impossible to get either the National Union of Co-operative Societies or the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League to do so, we will fill the void that has been left for many years too numerous to mention.

The credit union league should also employ experts on the stock market. In this way they could buy shares of big business on the condition that a certain percentage of the workers are credit union members. Such businesses would still belong to their owners, who would still have the right to choose employees provided that they join the credit union and make monthly savings. In this way there will be more money for credit union members to borrow.





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