Avaaz, an international civic organization that promotes activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, and religious conflicts, is calling on people from all walks of life to sign a petition addressed to Western Union CEO Hikmet Ersek.

Western Union AVAAZ petition

They argue that Western Union is taking critical money from the world’s working poor by charging predatory transfer fees. They further call on their members and all well-wishers to urgently shame Western Union into action by signing the petition. The petition reads like this:

As citizens from around the world committed to eradicating global poverty, we call on you to show true corporate leadership and take immediate steps to ensure crucial international remittances to the world’s poorest countries are subject to fair rates. Specifically, we ask you to lower your total fees to a maximum of 5% in all transfers sent home by workers to developing nations.

Because I am an avaaz member, I usually receive their emails in which, among other things, they ask their members to sign petitions for many types of causes.

I got their email on the Western Union petition on 31 December, 2010. I will reproduce it here so that those of you who are not linked to Avaaz members can take a look as well. It goes like this:

Dear friends,

This holiday season, Josh, a Kenyan student in the Netherlands, scraped together a year’s worth of savings and sent it home to support 10 struggling family members. Shockingly, the giant money transfer company Western Union skimmed off 20% of the cash meant for Josh’s family in fees.

Josh’s story is painfully retold every day, the world over, on a staggering scale — an estimated $44.3 billion worldwide was lost in transfer fees last year! The World Bank recommends that transaction costs not exceed 5% of the total, but Western Union has never faced serious pressure to lower its crippling charges. If we unite in a global outcry now, we can expose its predatory practices when its carefully crafted, family-friendly image is most vulnerable: the giving season.

Josh’s generosity — and that of millions of workers around the world — shouldn’t go to waste! Let’s call on Western Union to lower its fees to 5% for the poorest countries, and when the petition reaches 250,000 we’ll deliver it to the company’s image-sensitive board of directors. Sign now and then forward this to friends and family:

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/make_giving_powerful/?vl

Sacrifices like Josh’s dwarf foreign governmental aid every year and provide a vital lifeline to the world’s poorest economies. Slashing the obscene profits of companies like Western Union would dramatically increase assistance flowing into developing countries. Instead, families around the world received far less than they deserved so that Western Union’s CEO could take home $8.1 million in 2009.

The World Bank recommends that transfer companies limit fees to 5% of the amount being transferred, but some banks and companies have astronomical hidden charges. Perversely, the neediest countries coming out of war or disaster suffer the greatest losses, because of transfer companies’ monopolistic privileges and exclusive deals with local banks.

The yearly savings of men and women laboring in hospitals, construction sites and restaurants end up padding Western Union’s profits. The company funds charity projects to improve its corporate image – but these do nothing to hide the massive inequity that their business model perpetrates. Let’s raise our voices loudly to support true generosity during the holiday season – and help bring immediate benefits to workers and the relatives they sustain. Together we can make sure that needy families – rather than CEOs – benefit from holiday giving:

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/make_giving_powerful/?vl

When citizens around the world stand together to protest injustice, we can force back unchecked greed and inequality – as we’ve done together before. Buoyed by the warmth and empathy of the holiday season, let’s make sure that generous gifts arrive where they’re most needed.

With hope and gratitude,

Luis, Stephanie, Graziela, David, Paula, Ben, and the rest of the Avaaz team

They cite the following sources at the end of their email:

  1. Western Union CEO’s pay more than triples in 2009, Associated Press
  2. Past Time for Remittance Justice, ACORN International
  3. World Bank Remittance Pricing resource

I would like to commend the folks at Avaaz for this effort. At the time of publishing this post, more than 330,000 people had signed the petition. Their target is 500,000.

I have never used Western Union before, but I have signed this petition. My experiences with international remittances through banks are always painful. Their charges are very high. As if that is not enough, the exchange rates that they use are also dubious.

Banks out there, you also need to take note of this petition. We understand you are in business. You have to make profits to survive. But then, if we do not bring our monies to your doorsteps, you will run out of business. We need a fair deal!

These days, I do not send my money to my relatives through banks. I just use my networks. I deposit my few Yens into a friend’s account here in Japan, who in return asks his relatives to deposit an equivalent amount Malawi Kwacha in my relatives’ account in Malawi.

I am aware of several Africans, mainly from Nigeria, here in Japan who do exactly the same thing. The problem is, however, that you need to have a big and trusted network of friends and friends of friends in order to be doing these kinds of arrangements with ease and urgency.

After reading about how Western Union is milking off folks who use their services, I am beginning to think that we, the people, who send our hard earned cash to our home countries, can come up with a fair global company that will be competing against the likes of Western Union. Is there anyone out there who is thinking like me?