Though no definitive pronouncement can be made on the real value of the new Consumer Affairs Act until we see how it works in practice, it has to be said that its intentions, as set out in the actual document are to be applauded.
It is the simple and straightforward pronouncements in the act—that make clear the intention to right some of the historic wrongs to which Guyanese consumers have been subjected—that catch the eye first.
Commerce Minister Manniram Prashad has already commented on some of these pronouncements including the long-overdue outlawing of those vulgar signs posted on many business premises across the country marked ‘Goods Not Returnable’ and others which either declare a ‘No Refund’ policy, in effect compelling consumers to agree to the exchange of one faulty good or service for another that is sometimes no more reliable.
Another interesting pronouncement in the new legislation has to do with the right of a consumer to return goods and demand a refund “if the purpose for which the goods were bought or intended to be used, changed or ceased to exist immediately after the goods were bought” which in effect means that if your purchase ceases to be of any practical use to you immediately after acquisition you have a right to return it to the supplier and to demand a refund.
There are other clauses in the new legislation which pronounce directly on consumers but these two serve as sufficiently pointed examples of the extent to which the new legislation seeks to go in balancing what has long been an uneven playing field that had been weighted against consumers.
What the new legislation does, among other things, is to target some of the hideously unfair practices that attend our local commercial culture, practices which are often attended by little more than a desire to fleece defenseless consumers.
The practice of trampling on consumer rights has been driven largely by the sole motive of maximizing profit which, though a legitimate commercial prerogative, becomes a grotesque wrongdoing when it is underpinned by the practice of providing goods and services that fail to meet the service standards expected at the time of purchase.
The new legislation addresses a wide range of supplier and consumer rights and obligations under the law, it is the extent to which it captures those considerations that impact on ordinary consumers in day-to-day transactions that renders it particularly important.
Here, two important considerations come to mind. The first has to do with what, these days, is the proliferation of cheap, imitation and often substandard imported goods that enter the country and are passed on to hapless customers only to end up becoming monuments to a waste of hard-earned money. The second has to do with the growing popularity of gadgetry and equipment consistent with the IT age. Here again the durability of much of these goods is an unknown quantity which, of course, does not deter some traders from offering them for sale.
Then there are matters of the issuance of receipts and warranties which have long been ‘grey’ areas and which have important implications for the liability of the supplier in cases where issues of exchange or refund arise. Again, the law seeks to compel the supplier to issue proper receipts and warranties which become instruments for pressing demands for refunds, repairs and exchanges.
On examining the legislation, however, one becomes curious as to how and whether it will work in practice since it is by no means uncommon for laws in Guyana to be honoured in the breach.
After all, it has to be said that some of the practices which the legislation takes have long been well and truly entrenched in the local trading culture which of course means that if the law is to be effective consumers have to made aware of how it is intended to work for them while suppliers of goods and services must accept that the law now frowns upon the practices of old.
Securing restitution or satisfaction, the existence of the law notwithstanding, often proves to be a matter of considerable difficulty for injured parties, particularly in cases where those parties lack the material wherewithal to pursue justice resolutely and aggressively and one is sometimes concerned that the route to justice is often paved with formidable bureaucratic hurdles that tests patience and leads eventually to an abandonment of the pursuit.
In this regard, the Guyana Consumers Association has raised what may well be an important point that has to do with the powers or lack thereof of the Competition and Consumer Affairs Commission. What the GCA says is that aggrieved consumers may perhaps have felt much better about the new legislation if the commission had been empowered to make binding decisions on the righting of wrongs particularly in the simpler, more straightforward cases of consumer complaints rather than having these go to the courts since the legal option is very often not without its own frustrations.
That having been said, what we must hope is that the mediatory mechanism which the new legislation places at the disposal of the commission is sufficient to effectively address some of the simpler, more straightforward cases of consumer complaint since the last thing that one needs is a circumstance in which the road to justice becomes so strewn with obstacles the aggrieved parties lose faith in the very mechanism that is designed to address their grievances.