Outcry grows for money-remittance services to resume

The call for money-remittance services to be reopened continues to grow with each passing week.

Georgia Sutherland is originally from Jamaica and, like many foreign residents, she migrated to Cayman in search of better economic opportunities. A nurse by trade, Sutherland and her husband maintain two households, one in Cayman with their three children, and the other in Jamaica with her elderly mother.

“It is difficult because the last money we were able to get to mom was out of Florida, through my older sister, and that was in March,” said Sutherland. “So, from early March until now, we haven’t been able to get anything back to mom.”

The various remittance services, such as Western Union, MoneyGram, Quik Cash, and Jamaica National, were all ordered to close their doors as part of government’s ‘Stay Home Cayman’ COVID-19 suppression and containment plan.

Remittance companies have been closed since last month. -Photo: Taneos Ramsay

“Despite the crisis, I’m still paying a student loan,” said Sutherland, who sends money to her bank accounts in Jamaica each month to pay bills. “I have not gotten a letter, or an email, to say we are pausing your payments for a moment. I still have to be considering how I’m going to get money to pay credit card bills, how do I get money to pay my mom; and if that is not essential, then I don’t know what is.”

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Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are remitted from Cayman to scores of countries around the world.

The Cayman Islands Monetary Authority reported that in 2018, $234 million was remitted overseas from the Cayman Islands. The top three countries receiving that money were Jamaica, which received $133 million; the Philippines, with $39 million; and Honduras, with $17 million.

“I think [remittance services] should resume, but, of course, there is the concern about preventing the community transmission of COVID-19,” said Arturo Ursua, the unofficial honourary consul for the Philippines in Cayman. “I would be happy to see these transmittal agencies go back to businesses, but at the same time complying with what the government asks them to do.”

Premier Alden McLaughlin has said on a number of occasions that the primary concern with money-remittance services is the congregating of people at a time when social distancing is required to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. He said his government was willing to consider any “reasonable” plans that could demonstrate effective social-distancing methods.

“We have a big enough challenge now with the banks and supermarkets,” said McLaughlin. “Those [businesses] still, in my view, remain the highest risk areas for the community transmission of the virus.

“If … we can be satisfied that there is a way to control that process and does not increase, significantly, the risk of community transmission of the virus, we will look at those operations,” he said.

McLaughlin acknowledged that his government has received some proposals, but none have been able to properly demonstrate they can maintain proper social-distancing measures.

“Just from my memory, most of them are just too small to be able have any sort of effective physical distancing protocols put in place,” he told reporters at a recent press briefing.

Government officials say the remittance companies need to provide plans that can show that social distancing can be effectively implemented in the businesses. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Jamaica National Money Transfer is one of several remittance services that have applied to reopen during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“We have submitted … three proposals to the government to date,” said Horace Hines, general manager of JN Money Transfer. “We have had feedback on a couple. To date, we are still awaiting a final response from the government.”

Hines said he understands and supports the government’s stance on its efforts to protect the community from coronavirus through the closure of non-essential business. However, he believes remittance services are essential, adding that there are methods which could achieve government’s desire for appropriate social distancing.

“We are willing, and we have been playing our part. Prior to the shutdown, we were observing social distancing in our locations, [and] we have been providing customers upon entry with sanitisation of their hands, and we have also now been encouraging customers to wear masks.”

Hines said JN is willing to abide by whatever requirements the government might introduce.

“In addition to our other efforts,” he said, “we would implement the alphabetical order measures that are in place and allow customers to come in at set times during the week to reduce crowding, as well as we would seek to open multiple locations across the island so that would reduce the need for persons to travel outside of their area and reduce crowding in any of the locations.”

Hines added that while approximately 95% of JN’s clients send money out of Cayman, 5% are on the receiving end, and they are in need now.

Some money-transfer businesses such as Western Union provide customers with an online platform where they can fill out forms and send money. However, the services in Cayman have been blocked.

Money-remittance services are popular because they’re cost effective and convenient, but they are not the only way for people to send and receive funds in Cayman. Other options such as wire transfers are also available.

“I had to do a wire transfer, which we know is more expensive than the remittance services because you are charged from the bank that you are transferring the money from, and the bank that you are sending the money to also charges you,” said Sutherland.

In order for money transfers to work, the receiving person must have a bank account, which is not the case for many people.

“The families in the Philippines find it easier to go to the transmittal agencies than having a bank account,” said Urturo.

“There is no perfect solution, but there must be something,” said Sutherland. “It’s better to have remittance services opening every fortnight or a week out of a month or something, but something has to be done.”

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