For Mother’s Day, Martha Ugarte sent $100 from Los Angeles to her 67-year-old mother in Oaxaca, Mexico. For this, she paid $14.95 to Western Union, and lost another $2 in the exchange rate commission. It’s this 17 percent fee that has her outraged, and it explains why she decided to travel across the country to protest outside a midtown Manhattan skyscraper on May 10, where Western Union was holding its first shareholder meeting since spinning off from parent company First Data in 2006.
“My father died last year, and so my mother is on her own,” Ugarte says in Spanish as a mariachi band serenades the crowd of protesters and shareholders cast curious glances as they hustle inside. “Every Mother’s Day I send money home. It’s not OK that Western Union uses this opportunity to charge me such high fees and then refuses to give anything back.”
The geographic and ethnic diversity of the crowd of about 100 people assembled here is a testament to our increasingly globalized world. There are Somalis from North Dakota, Salvadorans and Mexicans from New York, Haitians from Florida, Filipinos from California, Kenyans from Washington, DC. All have similar complaints about Western Union. “It doesn’t cost companies a lot to send money today,” explains Haiti-born Luckner Millien. “Since they depend on immigrants for their profits, it’s time that they reinvest some of that money back into our communities.”
The immigrants are part of a newly launched campaign by the Oakland-based Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action. TIGRA is advocating for Western Union to adopt a Transnational Community Benefits Agreement (TCBA), which would call on the company to donate $1 for every remittance transaction to a fund to be used for development projects within immigrants’ communities in the United States and in their home countries. Last year Western Union made 147 million transactions, which would have been a healthy fund for what would essentially be a Community Reinvestment Act applied to a company that controls 17.4 percent of the remittance market.
“Today, we’re putting Western Union and the multibillion-dollar remittance industry on notice,” explains TIGRA director Francis Calpotura, himself a Filipino immigrant. “The days of taking advantage of our love are numbered.” If implemented, the TCBA would set a precedent for the rapidly growing remittance industry, introducing a new measure of responsibility for corporations whose skyrocketing profits derive from the often dangerous and low-paying work performed by immigrants thousands of miles from home.
With their rapid rise, remittances have become a hot item of discussion within government, public policy and academic circles. As The New York Times Magazine noted in a recent cover story, last year migrants across the globe sent home $300 billion, about three times the $104 billion the world spent on foreign aid. Here in the United States, it is estimated that immigrants sent $167 billion in 2005. But with all of the newfound focus on remittances, TIGRA is the first organization to see the sending of money as a vehicle for organizing immigrants within an economic justice framework.
The building block of the organizing effort is something called the Million Dollar Club, a group of immigrants whose combined remittances equal or exceed the figure annually. Thus far, TIGRA has formed MDCs in eighteen cities across the country, from predictable locations like Los Angeles and New York City to less likely places such as Fargo and Providence. It’s an innovative technique–making “millionaires” out of mostly low-wage immigrants–but as a movement-building tactic it has historical echoes in the farmer cooperatives organized by the populists in the nineteenth century.