Banking with hope


MORE than 500 plantation workers at the WR Carpenters tea and coffee estate in Bunum Wo, of North Waghi in Jiwaka, have opened personal accounts with Bank South Pacific.
This was made possible through an arrangement made between the PNG Agricultural Sector Labourers’ Association (formed by the plantation workers themselves) and BSP to bring banking to those living in rural communities.
Members of the association paid K10 each to open a new account. The students and younger children were also able to open accounts under the Kids’ and Sumatin schemes, for K2 each.
This is the first time for the workers to establish an association to set up bank accounts that can help them save.
Gugl Peter Sylvester and seven other executives are the founders of the association (PNGASLA) which was registered with the Investment Promotion Authority last year, and since then its membership has grown.
Papua New Guinea’s labour force is concentrated in the informal sector and plantations with coffee, tea, cocoa, copra and oil palm making up a huge part of that.
In the Highlands region, most labourers are employed in the tea and coffee plantations, which are largely owned and run by the big companies like WR Carpenters.
The company  operates about 10 estates in Jiwaka and Western Highlands. There are coffee plantations owned by other companies which also employ labourers.
Coffee and tea plantations in the highlands have hired thousands of men and women and built permanent houses for them; many children have been born there.
Labourers from Bunum Wo WR Carpenters’ estate and the management have  been working together to improve the  workers’ wellbeing, and the savings initiative started with Bank South Pacific is part of that cultural change.
For Sylvester, the association’s national president and director, the organisation started from humble beginnings. It was formed on July 19 last year to help plantation workers from Bunum Wo.
“I am the son of a plantation worker from Chimbu. I was born and raised here. My father lived here at Bunum Wo for the last 50 years. This is where I was born,” Sylvester said.
“When I was a little boy up until my school years, I’d worked for the company – dig drains, pick coffee and tea, spray and prune to pay for my school fees and meet other needs within the family.
“Like my father, there were others who came from Southern Highlands, Hela, Eastern Highlands, and other parts of the country.
“They have worked very hard to build some of the places that we see today. Plantations have become our home.”
Sylvester said the workers had little thought about saving money until the arrangement with BSP was made. They’d get paid every fortnight, spend most, if not all, of it and then struggle until the next pay.
“That is why we formed this association as an avenue of hope. We want to encourage a savings mentality among the labourers and their family. We want children to go to school and have a better life,” Sylvester said.
One of those benefiting is mother of four Rebecca Paul, who has been living and working on the plantation for 40 years.
“I am very happy with the association and bank for bringing banking to our doorstep,” she said after being issued her new Kundu card.  “This is a life-changing service which I’ve never experienced before.”
Said Sylvester: “I can see that everyone is happy now that they have an account. It is good for the company as well because labourers’ motivation to save would enable them to increase their productivity in the company.”
Sylvester said the association has members in plantations in Jiwaka and Western Highlands who will also be able to open bank accounts.
“Through our arrangement with the bank, every pay week (Saturday), we’ll give them the opportunity to open up bank accounts. The banking officers will visit the respective plantations.
“We are targeting around 50,000 workers who will become members to the association and will have bank accounts.”
WR Carpenters’ plantations the association aims to include are Sigri coffee, Kudjip tea and coffee, Kindeng tea and coffee,  Minskina coffee, Aviamp tea and coffee, Kigiba coffee, and Gumanz coffee.
Labourers working in other plantations who will become financial members of the PNG Agricultural Sector Labourers’ Association include Kimil coffee plantation workers, OK Corporation, Fatima, Karkopi, Marban, Kamal, Mandan, Ulya, Warawau, Baisu tea and coffee, Monpi, Panga,CRA coffee, Poga, Urup, Dirty Wara, Kinjibi and several others.
Sylvester is now a primary school teacher and describes himself as “the luckiest plantation kid”.
“With the little knowledge I obtained I want to give something back to my roots. The company is our employer for life and the plantation is our home for life. We want to enjoy our work and life here. That is what this association is all about.”
Speaking for BSP, the bank’s Mt Hagen customer service officers’ team leader, Josephine Aiwa, said:  “If they request, we’ll come. This is branchless banking where BSP is reaching the unbanked rural population.
“There are so many other exciting services that we will help them with after they have opened up their bank accounts.
“We can connect them to mobile banking and even put up an agent in the plantations for the workers to deposit and withdraw. We can also help them with financial literacy trainings.”
BSP Mt Hagen deputy branch manager John Toma said it was not possible for the bank to reach everyone in the rural areas at once. “It’s very important that people get themselves organised either as a group or association. What PNGASLA did is very commendable. It has allowed BSP to do mass account opening.”
The workers received their bank cards right away; some made deposits and registered for mobile banking.
Said Sylvester: “This association was only formed last year but things have moved on very quickly from there.
“I can’t believe it. How we registered this group with IPA and got certificate and approved by the taxation authority (IRC ) is unbelievable.
“God is at work. He had heard the prayers and cries of our mothers and fathers who have suffered for over 50 years working in plantations. I want to hear and see a good story for generations to come, from what we started here.
“Most times labourers are seen as not an important group of people. They are outcasts, seen as mere ‘wokboi’ and dirty looking people, but I tell you, they are the backbone of this country.”