Who will bell the 'banker's' cat? — Part 2

Who will bell the 'banker's' cat? — Part 2

Sacrificing 'public good' at the feet of corporate profitability

Bert Samuels

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

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The Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act does not list banking services among the 11 essential services recognised under the law. Parliament created a schedule with the list of services that are essential to our daily lives, giving the relevant minister the latitude to increase that list from time to time. A sound case can be made, in my opinion, to add banking to that list.

Banks are regulated, so they need a licence to operate, the terms of which are regulated by the Banking Act and Bank of Jamaica Act. Once up and running, the banks' financial structures are regulated by the Bank of Jamaica. Officers are subject to scrutiny and directors and shareholders with more than 20 per cent of shares are subject to a “fit and proper” test.

Against this background, I wish to make a case for adding banks to the list of essential services.

My own observation is that the employed population is almost entirely being paid through the banks. Salaries are no longer being handed to workers in that small brown envelope — be it cash or cheque. Our salaries now appear in our accounts on pay day. Consequently, the opening of a bank account is a prerequisite for employment.

For workers, the paying bank is the employer's choice, so often many new employees must open a new account where their employer does business when it is not with their own bank.

In a previous piece, titled 'Who will bell the 'banker' cat?', I pointed out areas of banking which, notwithstanding being in the financial interest of banks, were having a negative and debilitating effect on their customers.

The new normals imposed on customers were put in place prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has now only increased customers' pre-existing frustration with the unilateral imposition of new banking rules. After the appearance of my article on banks in this paper, I received numerous calls and e-mail from frustrated customers who were reeling under the new rules of the banks. The rules are literally driving customers, the older in particular, up the wall.

There is, in general, a pervasive insensitivity to our generational digital divide. Service providers assume that we all have smartphones and laptops and can surf the net. There is no dual policy which allows online-capable customers to access service along with face-to-face options for digitally-challenged customers. From the banks' perspective, service may be digitally friendly, but it is woefully unfriendly to certain group of their customers. The market-driven economy looks at profits and convenience to the capitalist, unmindful of the collateral damage that a policy may inflict on the vulnerable and the voiceless.

A few examples of the user-unfriendly rules include the following:

1) At the same branch I hold my credit card account the bank refused to take my US$300 cash payment on my credit card bill. Instead, I was forced to write a local cheque for the higher priced US dollar Jamaican equivalent, and use the bank's external drop box. In short, they do not want me in the banking hall, and they refuse to accept my US cash payment to settle my time-sensitive credit card bill.

2) At another bank, where I have held business and personal accounts for over 40 years, my bearer attempted to make two lodgements using the bank's drop box. One lodgement was intended for my business account and the other for my personal account using a personal cheque. The business transaction was duly processed; however, to my surprise, my personal transaction was returned. I was told that I would have to make my cheque lodgements in person at the automated teller machine (ATM), using my debit card and personal identification number (PIN). This gross inconvenience is, indeed, personal banking at work.

3) In my Kingston 8 community, the ATM became faulty about six months ago. Rather than repairing it, the ATM was boarded up with no notice to the public, and seemingly abandoned. This leaves the walk-foot elderly citizens to traverse two miles to the next nearest ATM. Pensioners have their monthly pensions credited to their bank accounts, rather than distributed at post offices. ATMs provide nothing less than an essential service to these citizens.

As if the retiring of ATMs is not enough, branches are closing left, right, and centre. The old faithful, long-standing customers of those branches have not, and cannot, buy into the shift to online banking.

Again, here we have a conflict between the interest of bankers and the interest of citizens. What can we expect of our elected representatives, where the public good is being sacrificed at the feet of corporate profitability in their provision of an essential service?

4) Even my techie, Internet generation (“igen”) friend has her own challenges. She argues that when designing a web or mobile application there are concepts called user experience (UE) and user interface (UI) which are about making it easier for users to engage with the application that you have built.

However, a lot of banking applications do not follow these principles, and, invariably, become very cumbersome to use, even for folks highly proficient in the use of computers. With the banks making it compulsory for their customers to do online banking, without applying the principles of UI or UE, the effective outcome results in users being locked out of the banking system.

Furthermore, an increase in the number of security breaches is more possible, as people are forced to disclose their banking details to family or friends in order for them to carry out specific-type transactions on their behalf.

Bankers and their associations have become unimaginable oligarchies/cartels. Be it through antitrust laws, consumer protection regulations, or the Office of Utilities Regulations, there is a compelling case to be made to bell the banker's cat.

Bert Samuels is an attorney-at-law. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or bert.samuels@gmail.com.

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