Bank fees and history repeating itself

Michael Burke

Thursday, February 22, 2018

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In 2003 the newly built south coast highway became a toll road. At the time, I was at pains to point out that toll roads are nothing new in Jamaica. And I wrote it for the general knowledge of everyone. There is every justification for the present toll roads in principle (even if the amount of tax is not justified). This is the way our governments pay back the foreign companies that constructed them.

But that was not the case before and after slavery with the old toll roads, such as Toll Gate in Clarendon, Matilda's Corner at Liguanea (formerly called Toll Gate), and Ferry River at the border of St Andrew and St Catherine, among others. In addition, there was a cartwheel tax, a mule tax, and market tax. Those toll roads were planned to discourage ex-slaves from being independent. The aristocracy manipulated the system so that it was cheaper to work for them than to go off on one's own. The old toll roads were abolished in 1859.

The present bank fees have a certain resemblance to the old toll roads plus the mule and market tax. They are certainly a disincentive for poor people to branch out and start their own businesses. In addition, the paperwork and bureaucracy that new entrepreneurs have to go through, especially if they are importing items needed for their businesses, is certainly another disincentive.

Bank owners, like everyone else, are allowed to make contributions to political party campaign funds. Are all of us being forced to pay exorbitant bank fees so that the bank owners can make large contributions to the parties of their choice? The Government recently defeated Member of Parliament Fitz Jackson's Bill to turn back the exorbitant bank fees on the basis that the rules of the system allow for complaints. But at the end of the day the customers are still forced to pay the bank fees. Is it that the Government dares not change the law because it knows how its campaign's 'bread' is 'buttered'?

The credit union movement came about largely because in 1941 poor black people could not get a loan from a bank. So they had to go to loan sharks who wanted 75 per cent interest. The Young Men's Sodality of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Cathedral, after meditating on that part of Roman Catholic doctrine that speaks to the mystical body of Christ (the baptised people of God) and the reality of the Jamaican society in 1941, decided to form a credit union.

Today, some people who are ignorant of credit union principles have been elected to the boards. There is very little credit union education, if any, for the last three or four decades, so members to do not go to meetings — which is exactly what some directors seem to want. In that way they can bring their friends to the meetings who re-elect them. And, worse of all, credit unions are charging exorbitant fees also. And it is not all because of stipulations of the International Monetary Fund.

In 2007, the Jamaica Cooperative Credit Union League Annual General Meeting and Convention was on a cruise boat between Miami and Mexico. I was on the cruise as I was a delegate for the then GSB Credit Union (which joined with Churches Cooperative Credit Union to become First Heritage Credit Union on August 1, 2012).

US Congresswoman Yvette Clarke was the guest speaker at the banquet. She said that bank fees are imposed to ensure that black people do not rise. While I mentioned it in one of my columns that year, I observe that in the official report of that convention on the cruise boat no mention was made of the congresswoman's statement. Whose 'corn' did she 'crush'?

The answer to all of this is for poor people in Jamaica to join credit unions and take them back from those who seek to systematically oppress poor people. I have always argued that the cooperative movement should be in the tourism industry and financed by the credit unions.

We might not be able to replace the board of directors immediately, but we can control them through the annual and special general meetings. And, by the way, the number that constitutes a quorum in a cooperative can summon special general meetings, but it must have a specific reason(s) and only those matters can be discussed at a special general meeting.

But, despite attempts to turn back the progress of black people, there has been significant progress of over the years. How many have our heroes influenced? How many have other individuals like Bob Marley and Usain Bolt influenced? What about the late Monsignor Gladstone Wilson, who had four doctorates — the first of which he achieved at the age of 23?

[Wilson also spoke 14 languages fluently and as a lecturer at a university in Rome. When he returned to Jamaica in 1941 he was part of Norman Manley's Drumblair Circle. According to the late Wilmot “Motty” Perkins, before the advent of The University of the West Indies, all intellectual activity in Jamaica revolved around Drumblair, the home of Norman Manley. And yet Monsignor Wilson was a simple person. In the 1950s a messenger entered St Joseph Teachers' College and spoke to Monsignor Gladstone Wilson, who he evidently thought was one of the ancillary workers at the institution. When the messenger was asked what he wanted with Dr Wilson, the messenger was livid and used very strong language. What a shock it was when a clerk in the office came out and shouted “Dr Wilson, telephone,” and he responded. We might want to blame the messenger in that true story about Monsignor Wilson that went around Jamaica like a buzz in the 1950s. But in those times a black man having a degree let alone more than one doctorate was highly unusual then. And that was why Monsignor Wilson was so idolised in his time.]

Jamaicans need to see black images in influential positions. And we need to be given the opportunities to excel without being impeded by crippling bank fees.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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