Clive Phelps

Over the past 50 years, I have been engaging the banking system here first in an effort to improve the shabby treatment of their staff and the exploitation of their customers by giving low interest rates on deposits but usurious rates on loans.

Pre-dating the landmark judgment in the case of Phelps v CIBC in 1969, bank employees were not paid overtime, given a dinner allowance or dinner break for night-time work, or given maternity leave or maternity pay.

All this changed after the Industrial Court’s judgment in the referenced case which the bank lost. This ushered in the Bank Workers Union and, as a result, from the late ’70s senior bank staff were granted fringe benefits, such as car allowances, subsidised mortgages, share options, contributory healthcare, including dental care.

However, some banks continued their exploitation of their customers with ridiculous bank charges of dubious legality up to this day and continuing.

Obscenely, some of our greedy banks pay one per cent or less interest on deposits, but lend such deposits at rates as high as 24 per cent. To add insult to injury, most banks insist on holding cheques for four days or more before clearing them, and this is so even with cheques issued by their own branches while at the same time on-lending the proceeds of those very cheques straight away. Effectively, therefore, when one’s cheque is on hold, its proceeds in the interregnum are being lent at outrageous profits.

As to bank charges, for example, if a customer visits a certain Canadian-based bank here more than twice in a month, the bank seeks to levy a charge for the third visit.

Another technique in their armoury of extortion is the issuing of credit card statements every month even if there is a zero balance, at a cost of $10 per statement and deducting $2 more from personal depositions without the consent of approval of the customer. I am sure some of us remember the old lady who urinated in a bank because there were no bathroom facilities for customers.

As to US or other “forex” wire transfer transactions, beware of what you are asked to sign to effectuate such transactions because one bank requires the customer to sign a declaration entitling it to refund US or other foreign currency in Trinidad and Tobago dollars should the transfer fail to go through. In my view, such declarations are almost certain to be treated as a penalty and struck down by the courts as well as other legal grounds.

Emboldened by the silence of their customers, some of the banks here continue to abuse and are now almost at the stage of bullying their customers to use online banking. While there can be no reasonable objection to online banking, at the same time its implementation ought to be carried out without putting customers through stress by, for example, not taking their calls and making their attendance at the bank as uncomfortable and unwelcoming as possible, with the obvious intention of dissuading them from coming to the bank.

I visited a Canadian-based bank here recently to make enquiries about a business account and after being shunted around by petty clerks, each of whom made polite enquiries about my needs, I responded that my needs were such that I needed to speak to a manager. I was told to sit down and wait in an ungenerous common waiting area, which I did for about 30 minutes in desperation to see a manager.

Alas! Comes a Ms M bearing all the authority of a manager to “assist”. With a frown of apparent disapproval of my insistence to see a manager, she asked me how she could help.

As there was a customer nearby, I asked whether we would talk privately in an office of the bank. With an extended frown, carrying with it an air of indignation, she bluntly and dismissively said we don’t have that facility here, thereby telegraphing to me, in no uncertain terms, it’s either I talk my business there in public or she cannot help.

The brusqueness of Ms M, coupled with the audacity of her telling me that there was no facility to have a meeting in one of the bank’s offices, is an alarming situ­ation which I attribute to a lack of any proper training by the bank, and a lack of caring for what this bank perceives as its “Third World staff and customers”.

A possible solution is the imposition by the Government and Central Bank of a certain level of control over our banks and financial institutions in their manner of conducting business and hopefully to stop the plunder. Withdrawal of funds from these banks (described as “predators in paradise” by Time Magazine 7.10.2002) and placing those funds in credit unions is perhaps another. But, the starting point to aid any such objectives is customer push-back on a daily basis by every single customer of every single bank in this country.

Compare the position where, unlike here, one can walk into any bank in the so-called First World of the US and Canada (the headquarters of the banks operating here) and open an account forthwith, use First World toilet facilities, talk your business in the privacy of an office and be the recipient of respectful and decent treatment.

—The author is an attorney-at-law

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