*Photo by Glenn Tucker
*Photo by Glenn Tucker

A political movement supported by the island’s two largest unions is pushing for the government to pressure banks into curbing practices they say are harmful to Bermudians.

The People’s Campaign for Equality, Jobs and Justice – a community group that garners support from the Bermuda Industrial Union (BIU) and Bermuda Public Services Union (BPSU) – is troubled by a litany of policies. Perhaps most controversially, the group asserts that banks are discriminating against the elderly in their lending practices.

Rev. Nicholas Tweed, the pastor at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hamilton, called for an immediate review of banking lending practices “as it relates to the refusal to make loans to persons over 65 who have the equity and assets to meet the criteria for qualifying for a loan.”

“This practice is discriminatory and should be ended immediately,” he said at a Queen Street press conference today before a crowd of about 60. “It is additionally egregious, given the long history of racist lending practices by banks in Bermuda that many Bermudians feel that age is also being used as a mask to conceal the continuation of racist lending practices.”

That barbed criticism was rejected by Finance Minister E.T. “Bob” Richards. Mr Richards, who has worked as a bank lender, said banks consider age and earning potential when making loans, because those two things are chief factors in the probability of the loan being paid back.

“It’s not unusual. It’s certainly not discriminatory that banks lend money based on whether they’re going to get their money bank,” he said. “That’s prudent banking. It’s a pretty basic policy. Such statements indicate someone who doesn’t understand what the banking process is.”

Brendan McDonagh, the chairman of the Bermuda Bankers’ Association and CEO of The Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son Limited, meanwhile said the “decision about whether or not to extend credit to an individual or business is based primarily on the applicant’s ability to repay loans with income…Although a customer, regardless of age, may hold valuable fixed assets (such as real estate), he or she may have limited income.”

There were other concerns aired by the campaign. Jason Hayward, president of the BPSU, found the redundancy polices at the banks to be troubling. He suggested Bermudians are bearing the brunt of such job cuts.

“The banks have continued with their systematic redundancy polices especially The Bank of N.T. Butterfield and HSBC Bermuda.”

Local banks, countered Mr McDonagh, employ a high percentage of Bermudians throughout all functions and levels of organisation. That means, he said, more Bermudians may appear to be impacted by bank redundancies than is the case with other financial organisations where there is a lower percentage of Bermudians.

Clarien Bank, Mr Hayward said, has not honored previously agreed to mortgage benefits provided to staff. This lead to increased bills, selling of property and foreclosures, he said. He also criticized what he perceived to be a lack of willingness of banks to assist borrowers through tough times. Bank customers, he said, are receiving close to no interest on savings, while fees for bank accounts are increasing.

The costs of banking in Bermuda, said Mr McDonagh, is much higher than in most ports of the world. Banking fees reflect that reality.

Rev Tweed, one of the campaign’s leaders, said the government should undertake an immediate review of the banks’ redundancy policies so to make sure Bermudians are not being disproportionally effected. He also wants to the government to work toward agreements that would ensure maintaining certain levels of Bermudian employment in the banks. Additionally, he said the government should review the Bermuda Monetary Authority “with a view towards strengthening the regulatory and enforcement powers of the BMA, in order to protect Bermuda’s national interests.”

Mr Richards dismissed the notion that the government should be forcing the banks to adopt or change policies.

“You can’t force people to do things because they’ll take their money and go somewhere else. The PLP tried that. It didn’t work,” said Mr Richards. “We’re not going to be forcing people to do anything. We’ll work with the banks to find solutions. We want them to be a part of the effort to fuel growth on this island. That’s one of my biggest complaints against them: they’re not doing that.”

The Monetary Authority, he said, “has all the power it needs to regulate the banking sector.”

“The issue is how they wield the powers,” he said.

Mr McDonagh said the local banking industry supports a professional, strong and full resourced regulator and said banks are focused on enhancing the health of the country’s financial system.

“The Bermuda Bankers’ Association welcomes any feedback from stakeholders, particularly our customers and shareholders…Bermuda’s banks are well capitalized and well regulated, which enhances Bermuda’s international reputation.”

In speaking before the Queen Street crowd, Rev Tweed quoted Mr Richards’ comments made during his budget presentation, saying the banking sector is “pulling in the wrong direction.” Rev Tweed said he agreed with Mr Richards’ sentiments but then wanted proof the government was working to ensure the banks were doing more to help Bermudians. He suggested the government’s position on the issue had “stalled.”

Mr Richards, meanwhile, is preaching patience.

“Rome was not built in a day,” he said.

The Bermuda Monetary Authority did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.



7:15PM UPDATE: This evening, the Premier and Minister of National Security, the Hon. Michael Dunkley responded to the concerns raised today by the members of the People's Campaign.

In fact, this evening, Premier Dunkley reached out to Rev. Nicolas Tweed to acknowledge the group's activities today.

Specifically responding to the criticism by the group that Government has not formally recognised their concerns raised in their Manifesto, Premier Dunkley said, "I can confirm that very soon after becoming Premier, a meeting was held with the principle representatives of the People's Campaign to specifically discuss their concerns regarding a local bank. I was very clear in advising the group that Government would undertake to review and address their concerns.

"As it relates to their Manifesto, I can also advise that we have outlined our commitment to address the issues raised and formalised correspondence will be sent to the group in due course."

The Premier concluded, "I think it's important to note that I and my Colleagues take this matter very seriously. And I stressed to Rev. Tweed that it is our aim to continue a dialogue regarding the issues so that we can find common ground solutions to benefit all of Bermuda."



Statement by The People’s Campaign for Equality, Jobs and Justice
 
The People’s Campaign for Equality, Jobs and Justice stand before you today to challenge the government to take action in regards to the policies and practices of the banking sector in Bermuda. The People’s Campaign recognizes that banks play a vital role in Bermuda’s economy and to the community. They are responsible for making funds available to consumers and businesses for investments. However, the banks must embrace that households are amongst the principal sources of loanable funds in the financial markets and are amongst the leading borrowing sectors in the financial system. Our banks need to build the confidence of the community by doing all that they can to be empathetic to the needs of their customers and employees.

The People’s Campaign is alarmed with several practices and policies utilized by the commercial banking institutions namely HSBC Bermuda, The Bank of N.T. Butterfield and Clarien Bank. Examples of these include:

• Bank's redundancy policy

Since 2008, the commercial banks have collectively reduced employment levels by an estimated 500 Jobs, with the majority of job losses being absorbed by Bermudians. We have noted that during this recessionary period, the banks have continued with their systematic redundancy policies especially The Bank of N.T. Butterfield and HSBC Bermuda.

• Reduction of mortgage benefits for staff

We are troubled by reports that Clarien Bank has decided not to honour previously agreed and contracted mortgage benefits provided to staff. This unilateral decision by the management of the bank have put staff in a position of being unable to pay increased mortgage payments eventually leading to financial hardship, selling of property and foreclosure of homes.

• No interest on savings versus increased administration fees

Bank customers are currently receiving close to no interest on savings at the banks, while the banks continue to erode customers’ savings through increased fees on savings and checking accounts, safety deposit boxes and other administrative fees.

• Lack of willingness to assist borrowers

Sadly, during these harsh economic times Bermuda’s banking institutions suffer from a general lack of consumer confidence and consumer trust because the banks do not appear to be willing to ease some of the lending rates, in order to stipulate local spending and help Bermudians who are finding themselves in economic hardship.

Continued feedback from our respective memberships reveals their angst and frustration with the banks.

• Lack of willingness to assist employees who have received pay reductions

In September 2013, the Bermuda Trade Union Congress signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Bermuda Government. As a condition of that MOU, the Government was to make contact with the banks requesting that they assist with the financial hardship of workers who have been negatively affected by the economic conditions. To our knowledge, the banks have done absolutely nothing to assist during this period where we are supposed to be experiencing and embracing a ‘Shared Sacrifice’.

• Discriminatory lending practices against seniors

The commercial banks continue to discriminate against the seniors in our population. Seniors find themselves unable to borrow funds from the banks solely on the basis of age.

Recommendations

The People's Campaign is calling upon ALL those in Government, both the Governing OBA and Her Majesties loyal opposition, the PLP, to take action in response to the issues we are presenting today by supporting the following recommendations;

1. We are URGING the Government to undertake an immediate review of the banks’ redundancy policies, in order to ensure that Bermudians are not being disproportionately targeted for termination. A review would include, but not be limited to, a review of the current bank employees that are Bermudian compared to non-Bermudian permit holders.

2. We are also URGING the Government to establish a process in which agreements can be reached with the banking industry that ensure maintaining levels of Bermudian employment, which if breached will trigger consequences determined and enforced by the Bermuda Monetary Authority. (If this exceeds the current purview of the BMA, then we ask that legislation be introduced immediately to give the BMA such powers.)

3. We are also Urging the Government to undertake a full review of the Bermuda Monetary Authority with a view towards strengthening the regulatory and enforcement powers of the BMA, in order to protect Bermuda's national interests.

4. Given that the Government has stated its position as presented by the Finance Minister Mr. Bob Richards as a matter of public record that, "The domestic banking environment at present features deposit interest rates at infinitesimally low levels, coupled with excessively wide margins between deposits and loans....and to top it off, banks continue to lay off Bermudian staff. This is, on multiple levels, contractionary banking policy at a time when we need to expand this economy...Attaining such forward momentum is much more difficult to achieve when such an IMPORTANT ECONOMIC DRIVER AS THE BANKING SECTOR IS PULLING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION." (Budget Statement 2014-2015, p.16)

The People’s Campaign supports this position of the Government, however, to date it appears as if this position has "stalled." The People's Campaign would like for the Government to specify what agreements have been reached or are being proposed to get the banking sector "pulling in the same direction" as the Government.

5. The Government undertake an immediate review of banking lending practices as it relates to the refusal to make loans to persons over 65 who have the equity and assets to meet the criteria for qualifying for a loan. This practice is DISCRIMINATORY and should be ENDED IMMEDIATELY. It is additionally egregious, given the long history of racist lending practices by banks in Bermuda that many Bermudians feel that age is also being used as a mask to conceal the continuation of racist lending practices.

On May 1, 2014, the People’s Campaign presented to the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition the People’s Manifesto which outlined the expectations of the people of Bermuda. In response to receipt of the Manifesto, both the Premier and the Opposition Leader made a commitment to thoroughly review it and then to meet with the People’s Campaign.

On May 20, 2014 we wrote to both the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition expressing our concern regarding their failure to respond to the Manifesto. We were hopeful that they would take the people’s concerns seriously as they had committed to meet with the People’s Campaign to discuss the contents of the Manifesto.

As of today they have not even acknowledged receipt of the letter that was sent on May 20, 2014 nor have they made any effort to meet with the People’s Campaign. We hope that this does not reflect that they are dismissing the concerns of the people of Bermuda.

 

Rev. Nicholas Tweed

Jason Hayward

Chris Furbert, JP