January 4, 2010- New banking co-op aims to aid Filipino immigrants

In the cafeteria of John Oliver high school in east Vancouver, the launch of One Filipino Cooperative of B.C. (or OneFilCoop) is underway. There is a makeshift stage and a few booths. The mood is festive, with singing and dancing and many introductions and announcements. The goal is to sign up as many members as possible for this new, Vancouver-based banking co-op that targets a growing number of new immigrants and temporary foreign workers from the Philippines.

Harder economic times sparked the grassroots effort behind OneFilCoop last year.

"Globally, we were all impacted here and also in the Philippines," said volunteer president Bella Cenezero. "We wanted a way to help address and respond to this.

"Families need financial assistance. For many, even when they are here, they are still helping families back home in the Philippines. They have nieces and nephews to put through school, older parents to care for. Most families there rely on relatives who are abroad. When money becomes short, we want to give them easier access to loans and credit so that they can have more disposable income to share."

The launch of OneFilCoop comes as its target demographic takes centre stage. According to the Community Airport Newcomers Network, which assists new immigrants at Vancouver International Airport, the Philippines surpassed China as the lead source country for immigrants, sending 29 per cent of new arrivals in the third quarter of 2009. This momentum could help OneFilCoop grow.

According to Lara Honrado of Mango Communications, which helps companies reach Asian-Canadian consumers, "the [existing] financial industry's products and services are not fully meeting the needs of this group.

"Also, the settlement and integration and employment services organizations don't necessarily address this group either, especially if a significant segment of them are not what would be considered new immigrants, that is five years or less in Canada. Economic integration is still not happening to the extent that it could or should be."

Cenezero believes OneFilCoop's niche will be to offer lower interest rates for loans and the flexibility of smaller deposits.

"If you are a newcomer, it's hard to apply for credit. You might not have a lot of history or you can't apply for credit unless you have a loan, and round and round [it goes]," she said.

Beyond this, there are long-term goals for collectively addressing other community needs, small and big.

It might, Cenezero said, be as simple as "buying rice if there is a big need. We can buy in bulk and parcel it out in smaller portions to save money.

"A lot of newcomers have a wealth of resources and expertise, but they cannot penetrate the job market because their foreign credentials are not recognized here. They have many needs, from childcare to taking care of elders," she said.

Informal ways of communally saving money for personal and business needs are as old as time among immigrant groups. Overseas, Filipinos have long used paluwagans, where members agree to pay a set amount into a common pool every month and take the pot home in turns. In Caribbean communities, this same kind of rotating credit association is known as a susu. In the U.S., the Korean diaspora used to tap similar kye systems before local banks in cities with larger populations started catering specifically to Korean-Americans.

But the jump to a full-service banking system is still wide. A few years ago, CTC Bank of Canada, a Taiwanese bank, wanted to launch a program for helping B.C.-based Filipino customers finance property purchases in the Philippines. But, in the end, the idea never got off the ground because the cost of administering so many small loans couldn't be offset by gains for the bank.

Many larger banks have streamlined procedures, making it easier for them to offer micro-financing, but minimum amounts are still as high as $150,000 to $200,000, as opposed to a higher volume of smaller loans.

"It's hard to recoup the cost of underwriting smaller amounts," said Gary Kwan, assistant vice-president at CTC Bank of Canada.

For now, OneFilCoop has signed up fewer than 100 members, who each pay a $25 membership fee, contribute so-called shared capital of $50 and make an investment of $100. The goal is to hit 500 members in the next year.

"In many ways, this widens the small- scale cooperatives used in the past," said Cenezero. "There is a big element of trust."

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