Like many migrants and refugees, I didn’t know how to navigate Australia’s banking system when I first arrived in Australia. My home of India was a cash only society and internet banking, EFTPOS and ATMs were completely new to me. Looking back, I can remember standing outside the bank branch with my ATM card and not knowing what to do with it!
That wasn’t my only financial challenge at the time. I had ‘sexually transmitted debt’ from my ex and didn’t know what to do about it. My credit file was impacted for five years, and I lived with fear that I wouldn’t be eligible to get my permanent residency due to my financial situation.
These experiences are what led me to my long career in financial counselling. I work with the most culturally diverse clients in the southeast region of Melbourne at South East Community Links (SECL). I am also a consumer representative on the Australian Banking Association (ABA)- Consumer Outcomes Group since 2018.
Every day we meet people who have either escaped trauma, or who are leaving, or planning to leave a violent relationship. Most of these women are left with debt that they did not even know existed and some enter into debt due to fear for their safety or because of language barriers.
For many years financial counsellors have worked alongside clients from non-English speaking backgrounds who present with loan and insurance products. These customers sign up to these complex contracts without understanding their obligations or the scope of the policies.
Many of our clients present with language barriers. Often English is their 2nd, 3rd or sometimes 4th language and a good proportion, particularly women, are not literate in their own language. It’s unreasonable and unethical to expect them to read and understand English when they can’t read and understand their own language.
While we acknowledge the importance of community supporting each other, the provision of loan, investment and insurance products is too difficult and fraught with potential risk to consumers. It’s incumbent on banks and service providers to have robust processes to ensure customers have a sound understanding of their contractual obligations, particularly in areas where there is risk to assets, technical policies, or loss of funds and to prevent financial abuse.
SECL has been championing the use of interpreters since 2016. In 2018, we welcomed recommendation 1.8 in the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, where Commissioner Hayne recommended:
“Banks will work with customers: who live in remote areas; or who are not adept in using English, to identify a suitable way for those customers to access and undertake their banking”
We once again raised the issue of access to interpreters.
SECL made a submission with other consumer organisations into the 2021 review of ABA’s Banking Code of Practice. The submission highlighted the experiences of our community and the need for improving access to interpreters and language services. You can read these two case studies below.
Our recommendation in the submission is to introduce a Code commitment to: “Provide a qualified interpreter for any customer who requests one, or if a bank employee considers it necessary to communicate effectively with the customer; and arrange relevant training around using interpreters for bank employees who are likely to be involved communications involving an interpreter”.
In the three years since the royal commission, it has taken ongoing advocacy and dialogue for the banks to fully appreciate the importance of using interpreters. It’s pleasing to see that two of the major banks, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and National Australia Bank, have already implemented the use of interpreters and the interpreter logo is easily accessible on their websites. This is one step towards improving client engagement and making banking more inclusive and accessible and while this is a good start, it should be a minimum standard across the sector. We hope that other financial institutions will adopt similar systems, and consider other ways to remove the barriers that disadvantage customers whose first language is not English.
This is just the beginning for change, a call to make systems fair, a chance for people to have an equal opportunity. SECL will continue to advocate with other services for fairness and equality to ensure access to independent interpreters.
Next time you call the bank with your client please ask them to provide an independent interpreter!
In 2016, Amina, a Burmese woman, applied for a credit card when she needed money to bring her fiancé to Australia. She did not know how to make the application, so she used a middleman recommended to her by a community member. This “middleman” made the application online, to the same bank that Amina banked with, for a card with a limit of $13,000.
When the card was approved, he went with her to the bank. He took her to the ATM and got her to obtain a cash advance of 15% of the approved credit limit ($1950) which was his “fee”.
When Amina presented to financial counselling for assistance with a credit card debt in early 2018 she had been trying to make the payments and was borrowing money to meet other living expenses. Her English was limited, and an independent interpreter was required to support Amina with her financial issues.
In our discussions, it was clear that Amina did not know what interest was and did not understand that an application for a credit card did not require a fee to be paid to a middleman.
Samia, a youth leader at SECL, mentioned that recently she attended a bank with her father to refinance a loan. The terminology used by the bank was very hard for her to translate to her father in Dari. An interpreter was not offered.
Samia’s father got angry and blamed her for not helping him understand. Samia’s father ended up signing for the loan without having a full grasp of his obligations.
A few points to consider about this incident is the negative impact on Samia: