Consumer protection

Mention the phrase “consumer protection” in Guyana, and the name ‘Eileen Cox’ must immediately come to mind as her name had, over the years, become almost synonymous with the concept.

But since the passing of this bulwark of the Guyana Consumers Association at the ripe old age of 96, there has been no singular replacement in terms of her trail-blazing advocacy and relentless dissemination of her message – that the fair treatment of consumers is a basic right and not a special privilege.

Earlier this year Guyana participated in a Caribbean Community (Caricom) workshop to strengthen the risk assessment and product safety capacity of the region’s Rapid Alert Exchange System for Dangerous Non-food Consumer Goods, (CARREX) which was developed in response to concerns voiced by consumer bodies of the need to strengthen the Region’s market surveillance for unsafe consumer goods.

Several weeks after the Caricom forum here at home, low-key observances marked World Consumer Rights Day 2017 which was held on March 15 under the banner of ‘Protecting Consumer Rights in the Digital World.’

This was a missed opportunity for us to build on any momentum from the Caricom meeting and engage stakeholders on government’s supporting infrastructure for CARREX, and more importantly, how it intends to provide online consumer protection.

It’s no secret that consumer rights continue to be violated in Guyana and with little or no formally structured redress being available to citizens. These violations expand beyond the daily commercial transactions in the city’s shopping districts, to contractors performing shoddy work for homeowners and failing to deliver on promised services.

Within months of being installed, the coalition government issued a public warning to business owners saying that the law governing consumer rights was going to be strictly enforced effective December 1, 2015. This enforcement has been as low-key as the observances last month for World Consumer Rights Day, and consumers here continue to document violations from business owners in personal exchanges and increasingly on their social media accounts.

Perhaps the Consumer Affairs Division of the Ministry of Public Communication could release current data on the number of complaints received within the last year and also indicate whether there are any active investigations relating to home builders and renovation contractors. Of similar importance, consumers should be informed on how government’s consumer protection agenda is widening to include online commerce.

Globally, focus on consumer protection is shifting towards developing digital awareness for consumers given the rapid growth and advancement happening in the digital age. This government must now also turn its attention to consumer protection in a digital age.

At the E-commerce week 2017 held from 24-28 April in Geneva, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Associate Legal Officer Arnau Izaguerri emphasised the need for governments to provide education for and raise awareness among consumers and businesses on their rights and obligations when they engage in online transactions, through the dissemination of the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP).

“Consumers must be empowered, protected and educated about their rights in order to enhance their trust in digital trade, as they play an important role in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular goals 8, 9, 10, 12, 16 and 17,” said Izaguerri.

During a session, themed ‘E-commerce and Consumer protection’, UNCTAD stressed the importance of consumer protection in creating an enabling environment for inclusive e-commerce. Key stakeholders identified areas where national and regional consumer protection frameworks and institutional capacities should be strengthened.

Discussions also centred on the fact that today’s digital consumers have access to an unprecedented choice of goods and services. But as great as the potential benefits of e-commerce are, there are still several challenges including consumer protection, protection against cybercrime, protection from data breaches, unsafe products, unfair business practices, inadequate online dispute resolution, breaches of consumer privacy, and lack of coordinated action among governments.

The regulatory mechanisms to prevent fraud and monitor markets online are not keeping pace here in Guyana. In the banking sector where credit card transactions have increased tremendously, customers are merely advised to ‘beware’ and to exercise caution. Clearly, more can and should be done by the commercial banks to protect consumers, but in the absence of any advocacy surrounding this issue, the banks have seemingly adopted a leave-alone approach.

Overall a greater effort is required from government to recognise and empower consumer rights in Guyana. As US President John F Kennedy said, “Consumers by definition, include us all” and the rights of consumers, when adequately recognized and institutionalized will drive changes in the way business is done by individuals, firms, corporations, and even the government itself.

The consumer rights organizations in Guyana include the Consumer Affairs Division of the Ministry of Trade, the Guyana National Bureau of Standards, the Competition and Consumer Affairs Commission, and the advocacy body the Guyana Consumers Association – a member of Consumer International.

One of the most important – the Guyana National Bureau of Standards – which sets the minimum standards by which a determination can be made of most infractions against consumers, does not have the mandate to enforce or demand compliance for its own standards. This makes this most important of consumer protection agencies no more threatening than a toothless poodle.

It might be instructive that successive governments have so far only paid lip service to consumer protection issues when we consider the waste of resources that characterize many government projects. Current examples include the Marriott and the Arthur Chung Conference Centre, both of which are said to be in need of comprehensive repairs costing billions of dollars each, while no enforcement of standards is affecting the new construction going forward.

It is obvious that Guyanese taxpayers too, as consumers, need all the protection that they can get, and that the government needs to be invested in the issue of consumer protection at a more fundamental level.

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