Power of Love and Money

Remittances from migrant workers have come to form a new economic reality for many countries. These money transfers rank as a top source of foreign exchange, next to oil and garment exports. In many cases, remittances even outrank overseas development assistance and foreign direct investment as the largest inflow of capital into impoverished economies, contributing as much 10 to 30 percent of gross domestic product of a given developing country.

Northern-based international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have been seeking ways to control this capital by incorporating remittances into their own development budgets through encouraging governments to tax this income. Impoverished governments in turn have set up various programs to increase remittance flows. Some governments have created programs to lower the cost of remittance transactions, match remittance contributions, or facilitate the search for work overseas. Immigrant associations have also tried to organize around these remittances to direct aid to home countries during national crises. But much work needs to be done to address the global economic complexities underlying the current phenomenon of transnational migration. Migration is still the result of desperation, rather than an act of free will.

Remittances can and should be part of an organizing strategy to challenge the policies that have forced people to migrate in the first place. The Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA), a national network of migrant organizations based in Oakland, seeks to facilitate that process. Our immediate campaign is to hold the money transfer industry accountable to its immigrant customers. But that is just the beginning. As one Dominican activist has said, "We don't want to do this just to get some money in people's hands. If we're going to work on this, it has to be about building a network to stop the monster of neoliberalism."

Make Migration a Choice, Not a Necessity

A simple fact seems to escape many policymakers as they contemplate the sheer magnitude of financial transactions taking place outside "official" development channels: Migration is not a choice, but a necessity for millions of people worldwide. Migrant workers face not only separation from their families, but harsh labor and political conditions once they reach the other side of the border.

As an example, female migrant workers leaving their homes in South Asia to seek employment as domestic workers in the Middle East find themselves at great risk of abuse or even injury or death on the job. Workers in less harrowing situations still face hostile working conditions, sexual harassment, low wages, and no labor regulation.

South Asia as a whole ranks only behind Latin America in the numbers of workers it sends abroad and the subsequent remittances it receives.

In Sri Lanka labor groups have calculated that the abuse suffered by female domestic workers at the hands of their employers in the Middle East, accounts for one death every day. Most recently, 19-year old Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, received the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for allegedly murdering a child in her care. Nafeek was not even given a lawyer to represent her at the trial. The Sri Lankan government is working to negotiate clemency for Nafeek as well as improved conditions for all Sri Lankan workers in Saudi Arabia. But the government of Sri Lanka is in a tricky position. It has come to depend on these women's wages: the money sent back by domestic workers in the Middle East accounts for the country's second largest source of foreign exchange, behind the profits of the garment industry. Such "sending" governments have started making limited moves to pressure "receiving" governments to improve labor conditions.

Many South Asians emigrate to the United States and face a range of injustices once they arrive, especially those who are economically vulnerable. The racial profiling spurred by the September 11th attacks has resulted in unwarranted detentions, hate crimes, and special registration. These immigrants also face the constant fear of being fired or deported, low wages, long working hours, and lack of legal protection. Their experiences are parallel to the unjust racial profiling of Latino and other immigrants that takes place not only in the U.S. but across the world.

What is common to this range of experience is the corporate-driven globalization model that forces people to migrate. Flawed neoliberal economic policies implemented over the last 25 years have not only failed to reduce poverty or create economic growth, they have worsened conditions for workers. These policies include liberalized trade, privatization of state-run industry and services, and the triumph of investor rights over labor rights.

Migrants often flee collapsing economies in their home countries to seek better opportunities elsewhere. The irony is that they are forced to seek such opportunities in the very countries that crafted the economic policies that compelled their departure. And people from all economic strata are affected by this lack of opportunity; witness not only low-wage migrant workers crossing borders for risky jobs but doctors and engineers heading to the global North to earn substantially higher wages, contributing to the "brain drain," in many developing nations.

Cross-Border Organizing Around Remittances

Sending a remittance is an individual act of love from the sender to the receiver. Collectively, it can be transformed into economic power. Cross-border organizing around remittances can ultimately pose a challenge to the current model of unequal development that has forced people to leave their homes. Remittances have eclipsed overseas development assistance; the World Bank estimates that the total has crossed $300 billion worldwide. These remittances could be unleashed as a powerful driver of sustainable economic development. By coming together, migrants will begin to see the power of organizing their dollars and numbers.

Our network, TIGRA, is part of the growing grassroots movements linking immigrants with their communities of origin. Many immigrant communities in the United States have formed "hometown associations," connecting those here with those back home. As cross-border ties are strengthened, these associations can provide a substantial alternative to foreign aid and investment. South Asian immigrant associations send money to their communities of origin to rebuild after natural disasters, promote health and education efforts, and support the development of basic infrastructure. The outpouring of financial assistance after the December 2004 tsunami provides an example of how remittances could be channeled towards anti-poverty initiatives. In total, South Asians living abroad sent back more than $41 billion in remittances last year, according to the New York Times.

Many of these initiatives however are rooted in a charity-based model, ignoring the underlying economic policies that have impoverished their home economies and forced so many millions to migrate. What is needed is not always more aid, but community-driven development that challenges neoliberal policy. After the tsunami, aid efforts were hampered by the lack of recognition of community priorities and obstacles on the ground even by some South Asian hometown associations. Though post-tsunami aid was channeled towards building necessary infrastructure including schools and hospitals, it ignored the need to support local advocacy against international financial institutions who took advantage of the tsunami to further the agenda of foreign coastal developers at the expense of fishing communities.

Still, the efforts of these groups are crucial in countering the power of international financial institutions that provide "aid" in the name of harmful economic policies that have displaced people from their home countries. For instance, the promotion of trade liberalization and privatization by the IMF and World Bank in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh has further impoverished these economies, forcing people to seek jobs in wealthier countries.

Our work at TIGRA supports organizing and advocacy efforts that recognize the global economic context, bringing together migrants to challenge neoliberal policies. To start, we encourage community and ethnic associations to establish that their members contribute at least $1 million in remittances per year. These Million Dollar Clubs (MDCs) have formed across the United States from Oakland to New York, Los Angeles to Minneapolis, and Fargo to El Paso. Involved immigrant and community organizations include the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn, Filipino Workers Center in Los Angeles, Casa Aztlan in Chicago, and Somali Action Alliance in Minneapolis. As a MDC, immigrants can speak with one voice as "millionaires" for their local area, demand accountability of those who prey on their vulnerability, and set priorities for reinvestment.

Organizing around remittances must be transnational in order to be effective, and it must connect remitters to their families back home. TIGRA organizers have formed the La Liga de Sostenedores de la Comunidad Mundial or the Global Association of Community Sustainers as the organizational vehicle to bring together remitters and their families. La Liga Mundial (The Global League) creates a network between the Million Dollar Clubs and their global allies as economic leverage to promote sustainable development. This structure allows member organizations to exert power on both receiving and sending governments to respond to community needs and policies that exacerbate migration. The founding convention of La Liga Mundial is set for May 2008 in Mexico City where delegates from MDCs in the United States will meet with representatives of migrant communities from at least 30 countries around the world. The Mexico City summit will formalize the association and define a strategic agenda to flex its collective transnational power.

Building an Alternative to Neoliberalism

As part of TIGRA's initiative to form La Liga Mundial, the group is working towards setting up a Transnational Community Reinvestment Fund (TCRF) that will provide an alternative to the IMF and World Bank. These institutions compel impoverished countries to implement harmful neoliberal policies set from their headquarters in Washington, DC using the leverage of debt and economic power. In contrast, the TCRF seeks to support and promote alternative models of community development whose values of solidarity, sustainability, and holistic human development are central to the economic enterprise. Ensuring that affected communities set their own agendas will be a key tenet of the Fund.

The functions of the Fund will include providing grants, loans, and technical assistance to strengthen and promote alternative economic development initiatives in communities of the global South and North that have borne the brunt of neoliberalism. This can include, but is not limited to, building affordable housing, developing local business ventures, and establishing cooperative and community-owned institutions. TIGRA is currently conducting consultations across the United States along with global partners and is expected to launch the Fund in the spring of 2008.

Western Union and the Money Transfer Scam

An immediate challenge faced by immigrant communities is the predatory financial institutions they encounter when sending money back home. These fees, which run as high as 25 percent, rob immigrant families of their hard-earned money. TIGRA advocates are pressuring the money transfer industry to adopt fairer practices, starting with the industry giant Western Union. The central demand of the campaign is for companies to adopt a Transnational Community Benefits Agreement (TCBA) that would lower fees, establish fairer exchange rates, and prioritize community reinvestment in sustainable development. Such a move would make the money transfer industry more accountable to its predominantly low-wage immigrant customer base, upon which it depends for its massive profits. The company's intransigence in the negotiations has led to a migrant boycott of Western Union. TIGRA's network of more than 180 immigrant and community organizations in the United States is involved in this boycott along with groups in Mexico and the Philippines. Local boycotts have thus far been launched in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Providence, Mexico City, and Manila, among other cities.

Western Union and other money transfer agencies often function as the primary banking service in immigrant communities, yet they remain unregulated by the Community Reinvestment Act. The CRA was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1977 to encourage financial institutions to promote community reinvestment in the communities in which they operate. TIGRA's boycott of Western Union is part-and-parcel of an immigrant-led campaign to challenge neoliberal policies and promote sustainable development. If adopted, the TCBA would channel $1 per every money transfer into the Transnational Community Reinvestment Fund.

The system of remittances is the next frontier of economic justice work that links domestic and global issues. To meaningfully tackle the root causes of displacement, predatory economic relationships for one, we must strengthen alternative economic development projects in communities drained by migration. This imperative is the impetus behind bringing together immigrants in Million Dollar Clubs and the creation of a Transnational Community Reinvestment Fund. The central issue is working towards a world where migration becomes a choice and not a necessity.

Ultimately, however, TIGRA's success depends not on how much Western Union lowers its fees, nor even on the total number of dollars reclaimed for marginalized communities in rich and poor countries. Our ultimate goal is to be part of the movement to stop a migration that is merely a response to the epidemic of neoliberalism.

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