Cashlessness: A Look at Life on the Margins of a Digitalizing Economy

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In this episode of AnthroPod, guest producers Camilla Ida Ravnbøl and Marie Kolling explore the impact that the global trend towards digitalizing economies has on communities that are poor and highly cash dependent. The episode discusses Ravnbøl's research with Roma migrants, who live in homelessness in Denmark and who earn their cash income from the deposit on refundable bottles and cans. It takes the listener on a journey to Denmark’s largest music festival, the Roskilde Festival, which went cashless in 2017, on par with current developments in Denmark where more than 80 per cent of all transactions are already cashless. The Roma refund collectors were at first excluded from the economy at the festival, which provides a vital revenue for them and their families in Romania. But the festival is also trying to accommodate them, and this episode explains how. Ravnbøl and Kolling discuss the limitations that a cashless economy presents to cash-dependent groups as well as some of the unforeseen advantages.

Camilla Ida Ravnbøl and Marie Kolling are postdoctoral research fellows on the anthropological research project "After money what is debt?": Indebted Urban Poor Households in Emerging Cashless Economies. The research project is anchored at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Anthropology, in collaboration with the Danish Institute for International Studies.

Further Resources

Current debates on cashlessness and anthropological theory span the globe. To complement this episode, below we provide edited interviews with Atreyee Sen, associate professor in anthropology at the University of Copenhagen and principal investigator on the project "After money what is debt?", and Gustav Peebles, associate professor in anthropology at The New School in New York. Sen and Peebles provide a global outlook on the issues discussed in the episode.

The photos below depict the Roma engaged in work collecting refundable beverage containers at the Roskilde Festival. The pictures also show the swipe card system that the Roskilde Festival set up for the migrants who collect the refunds, many of whom do not have debit or credit cards.

Hands of a Roma woman holding the different material forms of money available at the Festival, including cash and digital swipe cards. Photo by Camilla Ida Ravnbøl.
Sorin and Mioara are handing in the refundable beverage containers at the refund station at the festival. Photo by Camilla Ida Ravnbøl.
Florica shows the digital swipe card issued by the festival to those refund collectors who are unbanked and therefore do not have access to credit and debit cards. Photo by Camilla Ida Ravnbøl.
Mioara works intensively to collect cups, cans, bottles, shot glasses, and various other types of refundable beverage containers at the festival. Photo by Camilla Ida Ravnbøl.

Credits

Special thanks to the Roma women and men who participated in the research featured in this episode and to the Roskilde Festival staff and volunteers. The interpreter, Simona Barbu, has been invaluable throughout the project, as was her experiences in working with poor Roma communities. Thanks also to Katherine Sacco for serving as executive producer.

Editing, music, and sound design is by Hz & Tone. Bo Aagaard Lange assisted with sound recordings from the Roskilde Festival.

The production of this episode and additional material was made possible with support from the Independent Research Fund Denmark and the Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The festival guests barely notice the many refund collectors who pick up their discarded beverage containers from the ground. Photo by Camilla Ida Ravnbøl.

Transcript

[00:00] [Sounds of people chatting on the train.]

Camilla Ida Ravnbøl [00:06]: I'm on the train approaching the Roskilde Festival grounds. The train stops at the final destination, which is the Roskilde Festival platform, and people are getting off the train.

[Sounds of people disembarking from train.]

Most of them use an electronic travel card to pay for their trip.

Then they go to the entrance, where they show a QR code on their mobile phone.

[Sounds of people talking in Danish and the beep of scanning a QR code].

And then they get a bracelet so they can enter the festival grounds.

[Sounds of more people talking, several beeps, and people shouting]

Marie Kolling [01:06]: Welcome to AnthroPod. My name is Marie Kolling. I'm a researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and part of an anthropological research project with the long title, "After money what is debt?": Indebted Urban Poor Households in Emerging Cashless Economies. The voice you can hear reporting from the Roskilde Festival belongs to my colleague in the project, Camilla Ida Ravnbøl, from the University of Copenhagen.

CIR [01:38]: It is the summer of 2018, one of those rare Danish summer where it's extremely hot. There is a concert going on. I'm standing at the back where people are sitting on the ground in small groups.

[Sounds of a crowd and people clapping.]

There are lots of people around me, drinking and talking.

[Sounds of people talking and cups clattering.]

A girl and a boy seem to be having an argument. They only see each other. They don't notice the young woman who's picking up their used beer cups from the ground. A girl gets up to get another beer. She scans her credit card at the beverage stand. When she finishes her beer, she can return the cup and the refund value of the cup would be transferred directly onto her credit card.

[Sounds of people talking.]

MK [02:44]: Roskilde is the largest music festival in Denmark and since 2017 it has been cashless.

CIR [02:53]: The aim is to make transactions easier, simpler, for the festival attendees; also safer, by way of reducing theft or reducing that people lose their money. So by keeping everything digitally, it's transferred or taken directly from your bank account. And in this way your money is kept safe.

MK [03:15]: The Roskilde Festival is part of a larger trend in Denmark where 80 percent of all transactions are already cashless. For most people who take part in the festival, it's a huge advantage. However, for a certain group of people, it's more complicated.

CIR [03:35]: The thing is that most people don't bother to go and refund their cups, or they used bottles and cans, so instead they throw them onto the ground. So the festival needs people who collect the refund. Like Florica here.

[Sounds of Florica talking in Romani.]

Translator [03:54]: Why should I do it a credit card in Romania? What should I have on it if I don't have a job there?

[Sounds of Florica talking in Romani.]

CIR [04:02]: Florica and many of the other refund collectors are Roma from Romania. Roma are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe. Eighty percent of the 10 to 12 million Roma who live in Europe live in poverty and are excluded from the banking system.

[Sounds of Florica talking in Romani.]

Translator [04:26]: My sister had a bank account. She's in Romania. And after six months she didn't use it, so they had to close it down.

MK [04:34]: Camilla has been doing fieldwork with Florica and other Roma migrants for the past five years.

CIR [04:42]: [In the field.] And does it cost money to open a bank account?

[Translator repeats the question in Romani.]

CIR [04:46]: I've been doing fieldwork since 2014 and I continue to be in close contact with them because they live and work in the city of Copenhagen, where I live and work.

MK [04:56]: For this episode, Camilla followed them to the Roskilde Festival.

CIR [05:01]:Cashlessness is something that the bottle collectors increasingly talk about in the streets, because they can see that there is a steady turn towards new cashless initiatives. There is an uncertainty of what will happen next year at the new festivals, if they can get their money.

MK [05:20]: We wanted to see how they tackle a cashless setting and what the festival does to accommodate them.

CIR [05:29]: I saw it as a way, in a micro setting, to study the benefits and the limitations of a cashless society. It could be a micro case example of a cashless future.

[Sounds of people talking.]

CIR [05:51]: I'm together with my research assistant, Simona Baru.

[Sounds of people talking in the background.]

We talked to a couple of husband and wife, taking a short break from collecting refundable bottles, cups and cans at the festival. Mioara is a short woman, with a long skirt and big brown eyes. Sorin is a little bit smaller than you Mioara. He has a limp, so he doesn't walk as fast.

CIR [06:27]: [In the field.] And what do you work with in Copenhagen?

[Translator repeats the question in Romani and Sorin responds.]

Translator [06:35]: We collect bottles.

[Sorin continues talking in Romani.]

Translator [06:38]: We don't do anything else.

[Sorin continues talking in Romani.]

Translator [06:40]: And we follow the big festivals.

CIR [06:44]: [In the field.] So let me ask you about Roskilde and this festival. How did you get your ticket?

[Overlapping sound of translator repeating the question.]

CIR [06:48]: How much did you pay?

[Sorin responds in Romani.]

Translator [06:53]: We bought it from an African guy, and it was 7,000 kroner for both of us.

CIR [06:57]: Normally the tickets cost around 2,000 kroner.

Translator [07:00]: They bought more tickets and then they made business with it because they charged more for the tickets.

CIR [07:06]: [In the field.] So you paid this man in cash.

[Overlapping sounds of translator and Mioara talking in Romani.]

Translator [07:10]: Yes, on the spot.

CIR [07:13]: [In the field.] And could you have bought the ticket online instead?

[Translator asks question in Romani.]

CIR [07:21]: Mioara and Sorin don't have credit cards. They couldn't buy the tickets to the festival online, and at the time that the tickets were released for sale in the ticket shops, they didn't have money either.

[Sounds of conversation in Romani.]

Translator [07:35]: We could have, if we had the money, but we didn't have money before coming here. We came here on debt. After we got here, we could pay the person. Yes that's why we are here.

CIR [07:49]: [In the field.] To pay off the debt?

[Translator asks the question in Romani.]

Translator [07:53]: Yes, it's normal that we have to pay.

CIR [07:57]: [In the field.] So you borrow the money from people in the community, not from the bank?

[Mioara and Sorin talking in Romani.]

Translator [08:04]: No, we can't borrow from the bank, because we don't have an income.

[Background sounds of clattering cans.]

CIR [08:09]: Most of the Roma families who live in the poor parts of the neighborhood in Romania have large debts to local moneylenders. And then they give an interest rate on the loans and the interest rate can be between 30 to 70 percent. So, very high. That means the debts, they grow very fast. They grow so fast that they very often can't possibly repay them. So what they do is to repay some parts of the loan to keep the moneylenders happy. Or they take out a new loan with another moneylender to repay loans of an older date. In that sense they are caught up in spirals of debt and never envision to become free of debt. That idea is not an idea they have. They will always have debt. But they try to keep the debt and minimum...

Translator [09:00]: We owed them around 18,000 Romanian leu.

CIR [09:04]: [In the field.] And how much did they borrow?

[Translator repeats the question in Romani and Sorin responds.]

So we borrowed from several people, and we took around 2,000, 3,000 from each.

[Sounds of Mioara and Sorin talking in Romani.]

Translator [09:39]: You see that your children don't have food and you don't have wood in the winter to make the fire in the house to keep it warm. Then you borrow because you don't have other solution.

CIR [09:50]: [In the field.] So the money that they borrowed was to pay for those kind of expenses?

[Translator repeats the question in Romani and Mioara and Sorin respond.]

MK [10:09]: It's hard for the migrant bottle collectors to get a ticket to enter the festival. And once inside all payments are cashless and require a card or smartphone, that in turn requires a bank account. But the festival is trying hard to accommodate them.

[Sounds of beeps and chattering.]

CIR [10:34]: The festival has taken into account that there are certain persons who are unbanked. They've made cash payout stations and enrolled people like Henrik here.

[In the field.] Hi, could I ask you to introduce yourself quickly and say what your role is here?

Henrik [10:54]: Yeah, my name is Henrik. I work at the cash station here at Roskilde Festival. It's the cashless festival here, so we are the only department here at the festival which has cash and can deposit them for the can collectors here.

CIR [11:08]: In Danish, refund is called pant. So a pant collector means a refund collector.

Henrik [11:15]: But that's also an important part of our job, to make sure that they also have a good time, and not only the guests here.

CIR [11:22]: The idea is to include them so they can get the money that they work for, because they do work quite hard with collecting all the refundable items from the festival ground. If they didn't pick up that, the Roskilde Festival would have to pay immense sums of money to clean up after the festival.

[In the field.] And could you explain to me, in your words, how this cash refund system works at Roskilde Festival?

Henrik [11:45]: Well, the way it works is there's the pant collectors who are our main resource of where we actually use our resources for, and then they go and collect their pant here at Roskilde Festival and go to the pant booth and get a receipt and also a card when they put the money inside. Then they'll go to our cash station and get the money paid out in cash.

CIR [12:04]: I asked Henrik why the festival needs to be cashless at all.

Henrik [12:08]: It's more for people's security, because there were a lot of theft, both last year and a lot of years before that, because people ran into other camps because they knew there were cash there. And we also want to minimize the money laundering, because you can of course, if you pay with cash here you can see where the money comes from. So that's also one of the main things that Roskilde really wants to beat out of the festival here. Having no money is also a minimize of money laundering, so that's also an issue we kind of work around. And that's why we only made it for the pant collectors because we know where the money is coming from when we pay them out.

[Sounds from the pant station.]

CIR [12:44]: A man comes to the counter to cash in the value of the refundable items he's collected during the day. He puts some receipts and plastic cards on the counter. They have developed these swipe carts which are called cash cards. Basically it's a plastic card to store value on.

[In the field.] So how much money can you have on a cash card like that? Can I collect for 10,000 kroners of bottles and get it all in the card, or how does it work?

Henrik [13:15]: Well we do have an limit of 3,000 per card, because we can't have that much money on a cash station at one time.

CIR [13:24]: [In the field.] So the limit of 3,000 is mainly for practical reasons?

Henrik [13:28]: Yeah it's mainly for practical reasons, so we can control the cash flow at our station. And it's more or less so we actually can also with the pant collectors say, well, you need to come by us as often as you can. Also to make sure—because this cash card is the same thing as if you're running around with cash. So if you lose it, there's no refundable on it, so of course come and collect as much as you can. Just to be sure that you have the money on you.

CIR [13:53]: [In the field.] Okay so I'm just, I'm just going to ask a stupid question, right? So the idea is to make the festival cashless, but you still want people to come every evening and get the cash, in order for it to be safer if they lose the card?

Henrik [14:09]: Yeah. The thing is we want to be cashless but we haven't figured out how to do it with a pant collectors yet, because they want to have it in cash so they can actually count the bills. And of course we need to respect that, so that's why we made the cash station an option this year, and we're trying to figure out how we can do it better next year to make it more cashless but also thinking about respecting the pant collectors in their decision on how they want to have the money in their wallets.

CIR [14:34]: [In the field.] So your experience is that they prefer to have cash?

Henrik [14:37]: Yeah, they really want to have the money, and that's also why they come on so often to our station because they don't feel so safe having them on a card because they can't see it and they're not used to the system. So the first couple of days we actually had people coming in directly from the pant booth here over to our cash station.

[Sounds of people cheering.]

MK [15:05]: The festival is trying. But how are the festival's efforts experienced by the migrant bottle collectors? Would they rather have cash than the value cards? Camilla talks to Florica to find out.

[Background sounds of cans clanking.]

CIR [15:24]: Florica does not waste time. I see her moving fast between the crowds of people swiftly.

[Sound of Florica speaking in Romani.]

She's a tall woman, very, very slim. And she has a long skirt. She smiles. She has a very charming smile. And she smiles to the festival participants when she picks up their cups from the ground.

[Sound of Florica talking overlapping with translator's voice.]

Translator [15:54]: We also take it from the ground. We take it from every—we take them from everywhere. And if people allow us, we take them.

CIR [16:03]: [In the field, with sounds of the crowds at the festival in the background.] Could you explain how a working day is for you here at the festival?

[Translator repeats the question and Florica responds in Romani, with translator repeating in English as Florica explains.]

Translator [16:13]: Yes, we wake up in the morning. All we collect during the night, we wait in the morning in a line to deliver at the refunding stations. After we deliver the bottle...

CIR [16:33]: When Florica fills her bag with bottles and cans and broken plastic cups and everything that has a refund value on them, she moves towards the refund station. While she waits in line...

Translator [16:47]: Half an hour, one hour.

CIR [16:49]: She uses the time there, because the line is quite large, to sort the items.

[Sound of Florica talking.]

Translator [16:56]: Separate the cups, the plastic cups from the bottles, and the shots from everything else...

CIR [17:01]: She sorts them into cups, into broken cops, into shot glass piles, and into cans, and into bottles. When she's done sorting it's almost her time in the line to return her refund items. So she takes the bag of bottles first, and the people behind the counter, the volunteers who count the refund, they pour out the big bags on the counter and start calculating how bottles does she have.

[Sounds of bottles and cans crunching.]

CIR [17:35]: And then she collects, she counts to final sum.

Translator [17:39]: We deliver the bottles. They give us a receipt with the amount. And then in the morning, we cash in the money.

CIR [17:47]: Then the sum's put on the cash card. She goes to a cash payout station.

Translator [17:52]: We give the card and they gave us back another receipt together with the...

CIR [17:55]: At the cash payout station, she goes to the counter and hands them the card, and then they pay out the value on the card in cash, and she gets a receipt of the transaction.

[Sound of Florica talking in Romani.]

Translator [18:08]: Yeah I think for everyone, it would be easier if you can just collect all the amount at the end, because then you don't have to worry about them keeping the money on you or anything else.

CIR [18:23]: Florica is less worried about money being digital than what I had expected. She's more concerned about the loft of the 3000 kroners on the swipe card, which means that she has to cash it in daily, and lose time in moving from the refund station to the cash payout station. Because every minute counts, every minute is money. Her entire family is dependent on the money that she earns during the festival.

[Sounds of bottles and people talking.]

MK [19:01]: The festival being cashless makes things much easier for the average banked person who can return refund items and have the value inserted straight into a card that guards the money safely. For the unbanked, things are by far more complicated. But being a bottle collector at a cashless festival does have some positive aspects.

CIR [19:25]: [In the field.] And then you save the receipts.

[Translator and Florica talking in Romani.]

Translator [19:26]: Yes, everything.

CIR [19:26]: [In the field.] Why?

[Translator asks and Florica responds in Romani.]

Translator [19:38]: Because the police searched us and they took out everything we had on us: our IDs, our money.

[Florica continues in Romani.]

Translator [19:50]: And we told them we have the receipts and we collect bottles and cups. We ask why and they said...

CIR [19:56]: The receipt proves to her how much money she was paid out at the cash payout station. But it also proves to the people who might ask what she is doing there, what she is working with, that she is working with refund.

[Florica talks in Romani.]

Translator [20:13]: I am more scared of the police than the people around here.

CIR [20:18]: It is important for her because they are continuously questioned by the police in the camping ground, what they're doing there, why they're there. They're very frequently searched. The police stop them, search their bags, searched their—search their bodies, and question their whereabouts in the festival. By having receipts of the refund process and also of the payout process, she can show where she was at a given time, in a given place.

[Sounds of Camilla interviewing Florica in the background.]

CIR [20:46]: It gives them a sense of being able to prove their legitimacy that cash does not provide. It surprised me quite a lot. Both I, but also Henrik who we talked to, thought that people didn't trust the digital system because they couldn't see the money. But after a while, they learned that they could trust it. Florica, Sorin, Mioara, and my other research participants, they quite easily learn to navigate this digital system.

Translator [21:16]: I always keep my bag on me, I wear it around my neck.

CIR [21:20]: At the cash payout station, Florica shows me her purse. It's a small, black leather purse with a string around her neck.

[Sounds of Florica and translator talking in the background.]

CIR [21:32]: They have a string around the neck because they're afraid that the purse will get stolen. Their things are frequently stolen when they sleep at night. She has neatly sorted receipts, bundles of bank notes, the coins are in a small pocket with a zipper, and then there the cash cards and plastic cards on the side. She has many different kinds of value in that little purse.

MK [22:03]: So what conclusions can we draw from the festival example?

CIR [22:07]: Well, we can of course learn that cashless transactions are easier, faster, smoother, and also safer for a certain group of people. But it's not so simple for those who are unbanked. In that way it's the simplicity that works in two ways. It's simple for an exclusive part of the population but it can also exclude others by shutting itself around itself. I find the concept of exclusive simplicity fruitful to grasp the complexity at stake.

MK [22:43]: What can we say about what would happen to unbanked Roma migrants if the entire system went cashless?

CIR [22:51]: If the refund system in general became, like, cashless, I'm thinking that it would open up a niche for middlemen who have credit cards to say, let me help you. If you collect a refund, I have a credit card, then I can, you can, we can install it on my credit card and I can deduct it for you afterwards. I can take it out at the bank. So, if the entire refund system in Denmark became cashless, there would be a niche industry community in the street environment that wouldn't be appealing to those people who have credit cards and say, if you pay me a commission fee I'll help you out in getting your money. That's just one potential scenario that could happen if you made the entire refund system cashless. We're already seeing an example of this by the way that my informants get the tickets to the festival. They don't have credit cards. They can't buy the tickets online. They have to go through middlemen who have tickets and buy them in the street. And they paid twice or three times as much for the tickets as the rest of us do.

I think it's almost inevitable that there'll be a sub-economy. Nobody envisions that cash will, will be totally eliminated. There will always be cash dependency and there will always be certain niches that are cash based. One of them is the street economy where cash is important because it feeds into many different interests that might not necessarily be—people don't want to disclose.

MK [24:23]: An increasing number of spaces in our societies are turning cashless. Our example shows that cashless initiatives easily become barriers for those on the margins of society. But it also shows that they can bring new opportunities and skills.

You've been listening to AnthroPod, the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. My name is Marie Kolling and this episode was produced by Camilla Ida Ravnbøl and myself. If you would like to hear more about cashlessness and its consequences, we've prepared two interviews with leading anthropologists on the subject. One interview is with Atreyee Sen, who is head of our research project and associate professor at University of Copenhagen. The other interview is with Gustav Peebles, who is associate professor at the New School in New York. The interviews are available on the AnthroPod web site. We want to thank all the participants in this episode especially the Roma women and men who let us record their experiences as well as the Roskilde Festival staff and volunteers. To know more about our research project, go to the home page of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen at anthropology.ku.dk.

You can subscribe to AnthroPod via iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud, and you can also find us at culanth.org. That's c-u-l-a-n-t-h dot org. Thank you for listening.