ROSE HALL, St James — Government minister and former managing director of National Commercial Bank (NCB) Aubyn Hill has weighed in on recently announced banking fee increases, saying banks have a responsibility to help customers who may be struggling to move transactions online and avoid some of the fees.
Earlier this week the Jamaica Observer reported that NCB and Scotiabank had raised some fees, a move heavily criticised by the general public, both major political parties, as well as Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke.
“I believe — and I know from my knowledge — that the banks have the wherewithal to ease the transition for those parts of our society (senior citizens and others who are not able to manoeuvre the online system with ease); and I am not just talking about fees now. The Government can't tell particular businesses what fees to charge but the Government can reflect how people feel about the issue. The prime minister and Minister Clarke have done that on the broader issue of the transition which is, frankly not voiced in the fees,” said Hill who is also the Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce.
He has heard complaints, he said, from bank customers in rural Jamaica who have a challenge accessing their accounts on weekends when banks are closed to the public.
“When I go to the country that is all I hear, 'On Friday evening, we need to get money and we can't go into the bank to draw it. We can't deposit our money in the bank',” he said. He was speaking with the Observer following a press launch of the World Free Zones Organization (WFZO) 8th Annual International Conference and Exhibition (AICE) at the Montego Bay Convention Centre in St James on Thursday.
The former banker suggested that banks explore ways to make the shift to online banking less jarring for customers. Large swathes of the country's population face challenges with Internet accessibility and older customers are often unable to navigate the digital space.
“Maybe two days a week if you are going to move from cash to cashless, you can transition this in the country,” Hill suggested. “There are issues [moving transactions online] that can be addressed without too much contention, but there are some [banking fees] that are contentious that may take deeper negotiations.”
In 2020, NCB — the country's largest commercial bank — closed its Half Moon, Annotto Bay and Chapelton branches in the respective parishes of St James, St Mary and Clarendon.
It also reportedly downgraded a number of branches which resulted in job cuts.
That same year, Scotiabank closed two branches and in 2021 some six locations across the country transitioned to digital-focused branches. They were Christiana, Falmouth, Portmore, Port Antonio, Port Maria and St Ann's Bay. The bank also closed two of its locations: Black River and Old Harbour.
Some who assume the banks have slashed overhead costs with these changes have questioned the need for increased fees, accusing the financial institutions of adding to already full coffers at a time when customers are having to tighten their belts. The banks have pointed out that some fees may be avoided if transactions are done online.
Hill said banks have a responsibility to assist customers who are not able to navigate this new — to them — way of banking.
“You have to help those who can't transition. We all can't get to the bank transition from cash to cashless at the same time. So, you have to help those who are not as fast in getting it because truthfully, over the decades, they (customers) helped you build your business. Don't forget them,” the former banker urged.
— Anthony Lewis