Standing four feet tall and two feet wide, barrels have made an immense impact on West Indies remittances. Customers usually buy a barrel and spend the next few months filling it up with whatever they can buy to send back home. They will set aside money each week and try to buy things on sale. Some popular items include corn flakes, beans, rice, canned milk, clothing, and school supplies. Most recently, the items have been changing to include electronics and things such as toilet paper, paper towels, and hangers- all of which are too expensive to buy in the Caribbean, says Professor J.A. George Irish, former director of the Caribbean Research Center at Medgar Evers College (New York City News Service). These barrels are typically “filled with $500 to $2,000” worth of merchandise (New York Post). Many times it is cheaper to buy things in the United States than in the Caribbean countries, and often relatives there can’t afford it. In an interview conducted with Professor J.A. George Irish, he explains that barrels are not just remittances, but an “emotional bonding, because that was the only contact people had then,” (New York City News Service).
Local barrel companies vs. American companies
Lined along the streets of Flatbush are little stores advertising money wiring to Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and other countries. The local newspapers contain ads for barrel shipments, announcing sales and special offers. The improvements of technology in the field of transportation and communication “have increased the density, multiplicity, and importance of transnational connections,” (Foner p7-8). With the growth of Caribbean owned companies, services such as Western Union or UPS and FedEx are losing West Indies clientele. Shipping a maximum of 150 pounds to Kingston through UPS will be over $1,000, whereas a barrel will run closer to $80 (New York City News Service). Deshaun Mccorkle, a customer service agent at Laparkan’s Flatbush location, said Western Union needs to watch out because the Caribbean oriented businesses in New York City have a much higher demand in the area.
Diasporic Caribbean newspaper ads:
Peak season for shipping comes around the holidays. Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas are major holidays that increase cargo traffic. The most demanding time for New Yorkers to fill up their barrels begins with August clearance sales and ends right before Christmas. As a result, the first week in December is the busiest week of the year for barrel shipping companies (The New York Times). Dennis Hawthorne, owner of Dennis Shipping in Flatbush said his company “shipped an average of 135 barrels a day throughout the year, but as many as 500 barrels a day from mid-October to mid-December,” (The New York Times). Deshaun Mccorkle says he knows a holiday is coming because 1-2 weeks in advance, there is a heavy flow of money so that relatives in the Caribbean can buy gifts in time.
Barrel Shipping vs. Money-Wiring
As the options of sending remittances have expanded, New Yorkers can now choose between sending packages or money. In Mccorkle’s opinion, it is very difficult to choose whether money wiring is a better option than sending barrels. Most of the time, he explains, it heavily relies on the needs of the family receiving aid. Sometimes it is better to send money so that the receivers can buy whatever they need, while other times they may have limited resources. When the latter is the case, it is best for the sender to buy it in New York City, and send it in the form of cargo. Often times, merchandise is much cheaper here than in the Caribbean or it may not be found on the islands at all.
Remittances: Helpful or Harmful?
According to research, the increased flow of external funds has been shown to hurt the development of some West Indian countries. “In St. Vincent, dependence on remittances…only intensifies the desire to migrate,” says Rubenstein, “Externally, they permit capitalism to flourish unfettered; internally, they perpetuate traditional systems with low economic productivity,” (Rubenstein p.248).The long-term effect of constant migration does not allow for the development of the country. If educated citizens leave, they will take their potential with them. As a result, businesses and industries do not progress as quickly as high-income countries, such as the United States. Professor J.A George Irish agrees that remittances hurts the Caribbean economy. “Every shipment means there is a dent in the local grocery store,” he says, but it is not significant enough to pose a threat (New York City news Service).
One example of a woman packing a barrel to Jamaica: