Thursday, June 24, 2010

Banks and Us: Employment without Wage We Didn’t Know We Were Contracting For

Stan Starygin

How many of you thought you were contracting to work without pay for your bank when you were opening an account with your bank? Right. None. Nor did I. Like all of you, I was operating on an assumption that the bank was there to keep my money safe and make it available to me upon my first request. My bank was the Bank of South Pacific (‘BSP’) and I soon realized I was dead wrong about that when I was forced to work for my bank for over a month and when I asked for pay I was told none was due.

Let me spin a yarn. I became a BSP client in 2009 and over the course of a year had accumulated a fairly significant amount in my account at that bank. When I was leaving PNG I was still expecting another payment which would be made to my BSP account once I was gone. I went to BSP and informed them of that by providing all the necessary information along with my signatures to effect a transfer of my funds once the final payment was made. I was assured that BSP had all the necessary information and that transferring the funds at a later date upon my request would be a cinch. I left assured of that. About two months later when I requested that the transfer be made I was told that it would be made the next day. I started patiently waiting for my money to arrive. I waited a week (it normally takes 2-3 business to make an international transfer) before I contacted the bank again. I contacted the bank again. No reply. Then again, to the same effect. Then I began emailing the bank on a daily basis which elicited no reply. I began thinking out of the box and decided to contact my friends in PNG to have them call BSP. Two of them did. One could not get any relevant information (although assured me he had spoken with a number of BSP employees); the other was given another email at which to contact the bank. I did so the same day I received it. No reply (I received a reply to that email a whopping 3 business days later regardless of the fact that my friend explained the urgency of the situation and the pressure on me to resolve it; the bank employee in question obviously did not see how the urgency of my situation caused by his bank’s error merited his undivided attention). Having received no reply from another BSP officer, I contacted the BSP Customer Service which replied to my email a day later. By then I had waited 2 weeks for my transfer to be effected. BSP took another 3 days to effect the transfer (not to get it to me, just to get it out of their bank) for which I gave very specific bullet-point instructions designed for any reasonable person to follow with ease. BSP, alas, was not that reasonable person. Once I received confirmation of the transfer from BSP I realized their error and immediately (within the hour) informed them of it. BSP told me that the transfer was at that time irretrievable and that I was to correct their mistake by sending out another transfer. I, naturally, protested as every transfer costs money and I wasn’t paying for another transfer which I wouldn’t have needed, had BSP followed my very straightforward instructions. I spent another few days arguing my case with the bank until they finally relented and recognized their mistake along with the mistake of having been 2 weeks on the original transfer request. When I received the second transfer I realized that it was I – not BSP -- who paid the intermediary and receiving bank fees which I would have incurred only once had BSP followed my instructions and sent all my funds in a single transfer. By then it would have been close to 3 ½ weeks of my daily communications with BSP. I conservatively calculated the time spent by then and emailed BSP a compensation request of 40 hours calculated at my professional rate. BSP informed me that it was not their policy to make such payments (I wonder if it is their policy to not respond to their customers’ emails and not effect the transfers they have confirmed; but I disgress). Let’s take a look at this more closely: (1) BSP owed me a service (which comes from the bank’s obligation to make its customers their funds available upon request) which it confirmed (by promising a transfer the next day) but which it never delivered; (2) I diligently provided all the necessary informed to effect the transfer the completeness of which BSP never disputed which makes this entire situation “not my fault”; (3) BSP acknowledged in writing (emails on file with me) that its services failed on two occasions and that they were fully responsible for this situation; (4) BSP failed to act expeditiously when they were informed of their mistakes; (5) I spent a work week’s worth of my own time (40 hours); (6) it is generally understood that if any entity engages a person for that period of time, it pays that person a salary or a fee (unless that person expressly declares that he or she is willing to work without pay (which I didn’t do)). You would probably be curious to find out what BSP’s response to this elaborate argument was. Well, they basically said that other banks in PNG had delayed international transfers for 2 weeks (mine has been delayed up to now which is 2 months as I have never received my transfer in full and don’t consider the transfer process complete until I receive ALL my money, not just most of it) and … got away with that (i.e. never compensated the person injured by their mishandling of the transfers). This is not a chat with a friend over a beer. This is the official response of one of PNG’s largest bank to my request. I tried to explain to BSP that two wrongs do not make a right but they were very convinced that it did and told me that they had already apologized for their bank’s mistakes and took up the tone with me as if I was asking for something completely unreasonable. Well, what am I missing here? If you are late on your credit card bill or go into overdraft, will your bank accept a ‘sorry’ instead of the payment of a penalty? Will your bank accept a ‘sorry, I should have set money aside for the mortgage payment last month instead of buying a new car’ when you can’t make a mortgage payment? Ludicrous, isn’t it? When we owe banks, they expect hard cash – or a line of credit obtained elsewhere which for them means one thing – hard cash – on a specified date. When we miss that date, they do not think twice about us while forever ruining our credit history (thus making it very difficult or impossible to borrow from other banks and otherwise financial institutions), they take away the stuff we bought and call it ‘repossession’, they throw us out of our homes and call it ‘foreclosure’, they take away our children’s opportunity to get an education and call it ‘insufficient co-signatory support’. In situations like this we often think, “what if the shoe was on the other foot?” This letter gives you an example of what BSP does when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot and the bank owes us and not the other way around. The problem here is that banks like BSP often get away with this behavior (I am sure that BSP was telling me the truth – other banks did get away with the same thing which doesn’t make it right) and trample our rights, dignity, and the overall fairness of the system we expect. They get away with this because we don’t expose their behavior and don’t demand what is rightfully ours. The system will not adjust itself unless we demand that it do. These demands can be made on public forums or directly to the bank, or better yet the relevant PNG government regulatory authority (which can strike fear into banks much better than anything other means we can employ) but regardless of where they are made they must be made lest we want to go through life as servants of the banks, as opposed to their equal partners. Quoting an influential US social protest band, “it has to start somewhere; it has to start some time; what better place than here; what better time than now”. If you are reading this letter in your newspaper, this means that at least you have a free press in PNG that is not controlled by corporations and that is a good start.