Australia’s largest provider of financial counselling services to multicultural communities, South East Community Links, has welcomed the release of the Final Report of the Independent Review of the Banking Code of Practice 2021 which includes a recommendation to provide free interpreters to assist customers from non-English speaking backgrounds.
South East Community Link’s (SECL) submission to the review focused on the provision of interpreters as an issue of access, inclusion and equality.
SECL’s Senior Practitioner Financial Wellbeing, Rachna Bowman, said the organisation had been part of efforts to champion the use of interpreters in financial services since 2016.
“Every day we meet people who have 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,” said Ms Bowman.
“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.
“These clients have signed complex contracts related to loan and insurance products without understanding their obligations or the scope of policies,” said Ms Bowman.
Conducted by Mike Callaghan AM PSM, the review assessed how the Code contributes to banking services that are inclusive, affordable and accessible for all customers including Indigenous people and people with limited English. It focused on the extent to which the Code supports customers experiencing vulnerability.
Where requested by a customer or bank staff consider it will assist a customer, the bank should commit to making interpreter services available, where practicable, free of charge. This should include, as required and reasonably available, interpreters for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers. To help achieve consistency across banks, an industry guideline on helping people of non-English background should be prepared.
Chief Executive Officer of SECL, Peter McNamara, said the recommendation is just the beginning of changes that need to be implemented to make financial services systems fair.
“We are encouraged to see Recommendation 48 in Final Report which highlights the use of free-of-charge interpreters and a suggested industry guideline,” said Mr McNamara.
“While some banks have already implemented the use of interpreters, other financial institutions are yet to take a proactive approach to prevent further harm to customers from culturally diverse backgrounds and First Nations People.
“We strongly recommend that the Australian Banking Association (ABA) accepts this recommendation which will help to ensure that banks have robust processes in place to enable customers from non-English speaking backgrounds to have a sound understanding of their contractual obligations,” said Mr McNamara.
“We look forward to being involved in the development of the industry guideline on providing services to customers of non-English speaking backgrounds and will continue our advocacy work to increase awareness of the intersection of barriers experienced by vulnerable groups in our community,” he said.
Case study: Amina
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.
Case study: Samia
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.
This negative experience impacted Samia in a number of ways. She had to miss school on the day to support her father (she is in year 12 and sometimes a day missed can make things harder to catch up); it affected her confidence as she felt that she was “labelled” as someone who does not speak English well; she felt like a “failure” because she did not understand “bank language”; and she experienced anxiety because she was made to feel the decision was her responsibility.