Our consumer protection regime sucks

In theory at least, local consumer protection regulations frown on business houses that display ‘goods not returnable’ signs on their shop fronts or stamp such notices on their bills.

These days there are fewer such transgressions though the fundamentally lawless practice of merchants refusing to refund monies paid for sub-standard goods continues.

No merchant should usurp the prerogative of enforcing a policy that rules out the exchange of goods, whatever the nature of the case being made by the consumer for an exchange or refund. Surely, there is something fundamentally immoral in any policy that precludes a consumer from being able to make good in circumstances where the good or service that he or she secures is not worth the money paid for it.

As in so many other areas of life in Guyana, the problem with consumer protection laws has to do, mostly, with enforcing them.

Businesses that derive material gain from enforcing an immoral and illegal ‘goods not returnable’ policy do so chiefly for the reason that they are aware that all too often the policing body’s enforcement capabilities are weak and that, in most cases, the will and the capacity of the victim to seek justice in the courts is limited.

So that when – as happened in the case of a Regent Street shoe store and a customer last week – a pair of dry-rotted shoes acquired at a bogus sale fell apart within minutes of the purchase, the proprietor felt perfectly at liberty to refuse to refund the patron, knowing only too well that it was probably unlikely that the matter – particularly in cases of relatively low value items – will be followed up by the consumer.

Another circumstance that works in favour of the dishonest trader is the bureaucracy associated with righting consumer wrongs. In the case of the shoes that fell apart the aggrieved consumer would have had to make her way to the consumer complaints body at Sophia with the goods, the receipt and a persuasive story if she was to secure serious attention. Except that once she came to an understanding of what the procedures were she took the position that she couldn’t be bothered and that she would spend a little more money to replace the rotted stitches. That ‘couldn’t be bothered’ posture is one of the things that unscrupulous traders bank on and here the fault lies with the enforcement agencies which appear preoccupied with their procedures and bureaucracies, however ineffective they might be.

It is poor people, invariably, who are the victims of consumer short-changing. High-priced consumer items are attended by repair and return warrantees and at any rate the merchants are only too well aware that well-off customers possess the option of litigation. It is ordinary people who acquire goods and services at greater sacrifice and who are less able to seek legal resort that depend of consumer protection. Worse yet, when the good or service involved represents – for example – the sort of household items that can only be acquired by saving over long periods.

Perhaps the strongest argument for a more effective consumer protection regime reposes in what is widely believed to be the increasing vulnerability of Guyanese consumers to sub-standard imports. This is a result of a seeming absence of quality control standards and a recklessly generous official interpretation of open market policies. These, coupled with an unmindfulness of the importance of applying warranty regulations have resulted in a virtual free-for-all in the marketplace. Here in Guyana, consumer goods of various brands appear and disappear with remarkable regularity, so that we have no time even – in the case of food items and electrical gadgets – for example – to determine their country of origin, far less their quality.

We know only too well that the Food and Drugs Analyst Department – by its own admission – lacks the capacity to determine the various drugs that are imported into the country. We are familiar with the stories of drugs labelled entirely in foreign languages. It is the same with items of food (particularly confectionery) that appear then disappear and with relatively cheap clothing which we endure solely for the reason that they are affordable and shoes which must be further re-enforced after they are purchased.

Support for a higher quality of imports can come from more effective collaboration between the Customs and Trade Administration and monitoring and enforcement bodies like the Guyana National Bureau of Standards and the Food and Drugs Department. There is a role too for the various business support organisations (like the Private Sector Commission, the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association) in seeking to encourage their members to adhere to consumer laws. However, much of this could be undermined if we do not at least try to reduce the volume of goods illegally traded across our borders.

Finally, it would do us all a power of good if our enforcement mechanisms were to be significantly enhanced so that we begin to pay less attention to the bureaucracy and to sometimes needlessly tweaking the law and begin to pay far more attention to the issue of deterrence that targets those merchants who, quite simply, persist in exploiting mostly ordinary people.

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