Standards in the construction industry

On August 8, 2017, we reported the story of Althea Thegg, who, nearing the completion of the construction of a new house – her dream home – had the nightmarish experience of watching a large section of the house crumble and fall away from the main building. Construction of the building had started just this April.

Ms Thegg immediately undertook a social media exposé in a dramatic attempt at achieving a remedy which she might have felt could not be readily attained through official channels alone.

This matter calls into question the general state of the recourse environment in Guyana, the efficacy of consumer protection bodies, and the level of awareness of Guyanese of consumer rights as a concept, and consumer protection as a basic right enshrined in our laws.

This incident also raises the issue of enforcing the certification and licensing of building contractors by a properly formulated body. There are any number of self-made building ‘contractors’ of varying skills and competencies who perform construction work across the country, but without any form of certification or licensing process that would guide the consumer in selecting a competent builder.

Additionally, and maybe ironically too, while the builders are termed ‘contractors,’ it is not at all unusual for them to carry out their functions without a written contract with the homeowner financing the project. This loose arrangement of an oral contract leads to much uncertainty and significantly taints the recourse potential; that is, even assuming that Guyana has the necessary functioning oversight bodies to deal effectively with such matters.

But while suggesting that the certifying and licensing of building contractors, carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, that is, all the players in the construction industry, should be instituted, we do not propose this merely as a means of increasing government revenue, as this should not be the focus at all.

The focus should be on the need to secure consumers’ fundamental rights: the right to safety, the right to protection from hazardous goods, the right to be informed, and the right to be protected from false and misleading claims, the right to choose, and the right to redress. If the certification and licensing of the players in the construction industry is approached from a moral and ethical standpoint and with an eye to establishing a standards-based, safety-oriented construction environment in Guyana, then this would result in a value-driven construction climate, and redound to the benefit of all.

But standards cannot be conceptualised and enforced in a vacuum. It is a well-established fact that the main standards body in Guyana, the Guyana National Bureau of Standards (GNBS), is very weak with respect to establishing and enforcing standards in the construction and civil engineering sectors of Guyana. Indeed, the Bureau is known for little more than the periodic round-up of faulty weights and measuring scales in the municipal markets and shops.

What is needed from the GNBS with respect to the construction industry is a comprehensive overhaul of all aspects of the standards relating to the construction of buildings in Guyana. Thereafter, there must be a period of information dissemination to the general public and specifically to the small, medium and large stakeholders in the industry. There must be an education drive to let existing players know what steps they may have to take to upgrade themselves so as to become compliant in every aspect of their role in the construction industry and their responsibilities to those utilising their services.

We have said before in these pages and repeat it here that the GNBS must also have the authority to sanction defaulters who breach established standards and to facilitate the process whereby consumers can seek redress for faulty work done and the utilization of sub-standard building products.

Another factor inhibiting the instituting of a standardized and standards based construction environment in Guyana is the fact that the Government of Guyana itself must not be allowed to breach standards in construction without accountability and sanction. There have been many failed projects over the years and successive administrations have wasted scarce financial resources on sub-standard projects which have had to be repaired and/or replaced at substantial cost to the people of Guyana.

As the responsibility for the establishment and implementation of standards and the accompanying recourse mechanisms and sanctions rests with the government, we cannot allow the government to be exempt from its own standards, or give it carte blanche to breach standards without official sanction.

The growth and development of this country will not be achieved by cuddling inefficiency and condoning inferiority in products and services, as this puts an official stamp on corruption. The innocent suffer, and consumer protection as a concept and a legal construct is broken off and crumbles to the ground as dust and rubble.

The reference to Ms Theggs’ house does indeed help to illustrate the sense of hopelessness that the average consumer of goods and services suffers from in Guyana. There are many untold horror stories relating to poor construction work handed out to first-time home owners and others. Cost overruns, sloppy work, poor building material, and other horror stories similar to that endured by Ms Thegg do not always find their way into social media, or indeed the formal news media. Persons have grown accustomed to the idea that they are powerless to achieve a meaningful remedy within a sensible timeframe, and without the additional financial burden of the cost of litigation, etc.

The matters arising out of the plight of Ms Thegg are many, but they should not cause those in authority to balk at addressing the various issues. A good way to start would be requirements for the certification and licensing of players in the construction industry, and the empowering of the GNBS and consumer protection agencies.

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