Money transfers -- or remittances sent home by migrant workers -- is big business. Some $500 billion dollars circle the globe every year.
Money in Minutes looks at the business of money transfers in the context of global migration. Filmmakers follow migrant workers such as Brando Alvarenga, a construction worker in Miami who sends funds to his family in Honduras; Li Wang, a textile worker in Italy who sends money home to China; and Gauri Gurung, a cloth vendor from Nepal working in Dubai.
It Is a fiercely competitive business, and there are many companies providing the service to migrants sending money home.
But there is also a darker side, involving money laundering and smuggling rings. How do the authorities deal with this growing problem of misuse?
By Monika Hielscher and Matthias Heeder
Western Union and MoneyGram stores are scattered across the planet – almost everyone knows them. Their sight is so common to us we don't even give them a second thought unless we need to send or receive cash, as happened to me a couple of years ago in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Here I found myself inside a Western Union store, standing in line with dozens of locals, waiting to pick up money that was sent by family members working in the USA, somewhere in Europe or the Middle East.
Back then I wasn't aware that most migrant workers used money transfer services to support their families back home. For me, like most middle-class Europeans and North Americans, these money transfer companies are a convenient way of helping out relatives or friends in trouble, even if you have to pay outrageous fees for the service. But when talking to some of the customers in the queue of this store in Ouagadougou – mothers, sisters and grandmas - it dawned on me that migrants who sent money on a regular basis are contributing to a very lucrative business. That was the moment the project that would keep us busy for the next three years began to take shape.
In the past my wife and I have made films about the situation of migrants who face hostility in their host countries. Many films of that subject matter however focus on the migrant as victim, on the hardship of the individual in an effort to somehow touch the cold-heartedness of rich societies. Seldom do we see migrants as self-confident and courageous people determined to take their lives into their own hands for the better of their families.
The money transfer industry as a hook for a different look at the migrant population in western countries seemed a convincing concept to us, since it is the money that keeps people moving and the industry growing. So we invited the big players - Western Union and MoneyGram - to participate in the making of the documentary. But despite initially agreeing, both companies withdraw.
It was only later, after we learned a lot more about the industry, that we understood why. Money transfer is a yet unexplored territory of hidden profits, excessive pricing, money laundering, illegal financing and shareholder interests – to say the least. So why talk about it? Our initial idea - to shed light on the remittance industry as the financial infrastructure of global migration – came down to a most profane reality: it's an industry focused on maximizing return for shareholders. Period. And however effectively they can do it, they'll do it. As filmmakers we felt that it was time that we start talking about the business of money transfers - not about money transfer as an unfair and flawed system - but about fair pricing, transparent procedures and less greed of those running the business.