UNI Finance demands answers at Santander’s shareholder meeting for unethical practices in the U.S.
The global union representing 3 million finance workers—including thousands of Santander employees worldwide—demanded answers today regarding the Spanish banking giant’s unethical consumer and employment practices in the United States.
Angelo Di Cristo, Head of UNI Finance, posed a question to Santander’s board at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. The full text of the question is below.
“Workers and shareholders deserve real solutions for the widespread problems tainting Santander’s U.S. operations, but so far, the bank has given inadequate answers to investors’ questions and made cosmetic changes to address workers’ concerns,” Di Cristo said.
Based on in-depth research, regulatory actions, and press accounts, UNI Finance is alarmed that policies and practices at Santander’s U.S. subsidiary, Santander Consumer USA (SCUSA), create incentives for unethical behaviour that in turn generate regulatory, reputational and financial risks for investors.
A recent report, “Wheeling and Dealing in Misfortune,” exposes a culture in Santander’s automotive lending operation that pushes high-interest loan modifications and hidden fees on millions of Americans. Workers say they must aggressively collect on overdue bills—at all costs—or risk losing their jobs.
Santander has had to pay millions in the United States for auto-loan practices one regulator called “outrageous,” and is currently facing additional investigations. Last month, the bank paid $3 million to the U.S. state of Connecticut to settle accusations of excess charges and inaccurate balance calculations for repossessed cars.
Santander workers say that having a union would allow them to be more effective whistle-blowers against unethical policies and procedures as well as negotiate working conditions that would allow them to elevate consumers’ interests.
Santander workers in the United States have attempted to form a union with the Communication Workers of America, but they have faced opposition from bank management. Santander recognizes union rights and collective bargaining in every other country where Santander operates.
“Santander says it follows U.S. law regarding labor relations, but clearly that is not good enough. Not breaking the law does not make one ethical. We want Santander to follow its own code of conduct which states that the company respects workers’ right to free association and collective bargaining,” said Di Cristo.
UNI’s question to Santander’s board is the following:
Recently we asked Banco Santander how it planned to fulfil its obligation to ensure that its US subsidiary, Santander Consumer USA (SCUSA), operates in a manner consistent with the parent company’s policies and Code of Conduct. This is in light of SCUSA’s having been the subject of multiple fines and other regulatory enforcement actions at both the state and federal levels for failing to provide customers with complete information, for unlawful repossession of vehicles and for other violations of fair lending practices. As we noted in our question to you, because of these violations, SCUSA has been compelled to provide detailed plans for improving compliance, risk management and internal controls to the US Federal Reserve for each of the past three years.
In response, you denied that workers in SCUSA face undue pressure to sell products or services they know are not in the best interests of the customer. We have substantial evidence, however, in the form of worker testimony and public statements of concern from US lawmakers, to support our assertions. Workers in your US operations have asked that they be allowed to exercise their internationally recognized right to come together to collectively represent their concerns and bargain agreements that address workplace practices that affect both them and the customers they serve. But SCUSA workers, who – unlike Santander workers everywhere else in your global operations – have no union representation, have expressed fear of retaliation or termination if they raise concerns about the harsh performance metrics to which they are subject and the practices that they fear are harmful to vulnerable customers and which have attracted regulatory scrutiny.
In your response, you referred to “team meetings”, “Town Halls” and employee surveys, when you know that these are no substitute for workers’ right to organize and represent their views to management through their chosen representatives. Surveys in particular are notoriously weak as a tool for communicating with workers and understanding their concerns; in a repressive environment, such surveys are unlikely to provide an accurate assessment of the workplace environment given that there is no job stability and employees could be fired for any reason, including for harsh evaluations of the company in its own survey.
You have told us that the Bank has an “autonomous subsidiaries model,” which, as you say, implies that matters relating to US employees are dealt with by your US business and in accordance with “applicable law.” There are several problems, both normative and governance-related, with this approach. First, it does not align with Santander’s commitment to internationally recognized human rights principles, as you are well aware that US labor law is less protective of workers’ fundamental rights than is labor law in other regions such as Europe. Second, it goes against the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which Santander has committed to upholding and which explicitly require all companies to respect all internationally recognized human rights throughout their operations, regardless of whether individual countries in which they do business fulfill their duty to protect these rights. Third, from an operational point of view we find unsatisfactory the assertion that your US branch should deal with issues according to local procedure. This kind of governance gap – allowing local units to govern an issue in a way that does not align with the rest of the company’s policies – brings unnecessary operational and reputational risks. The fines that SCUSA has had to pay in connection with its customer practices and the scrutiny that its treatment of workers is bringing on the part of concerned lawmakers underscore this point.
Given these risks, we would like to know how the company reconciles its differential treatment of the right to freedom of association in the United States to how it deals with this issue in other parts of your operations.
UNI Finance, the global union for all finance and insurance workers, represents 3 million employees in 237 trade unions worldwide. It is part of UNI Global Union, the global federation for service sector unions.