Consumers must be on their guard

Dear Editor,

In the space of a short 24-hour span, I had cause to make acquaintance with government inflicted pain and private harm.  In terms of the former, a visit to the dentist’s brought an introduction to the new VAT levy; I needed another shot of Novocain just to get my bearings.  As for the latter, I stopped later for some jugs of water, only to discover that the price had gone up by a handsome twenty dollars (10%) each.  Now, there is a nice bit of corporate racketeering that is not in any Chamber of Commerce manual.

I know the dental people well; that VAT money will be transmitted to the GRA.  As for many others, I have serious doubts as to who will get what, except that the consuming public will be held hostage and made to pay through the nose, if not elsewhere, too.  Now in the midst of the continuing furor over new VAT and new prices, I seek through broad strokes to take a realistic look at how all involved can be made to act responsibly.

There are three parties  involved: the public, business, and government.  The public must be vigilant to price gouging and naked profiteering by unscrupulous and unconscionable businesses.  I know of situations where prices were raised in December; that would be prior to the passage of the VAT proposals.  There are other instances where prices have increased, but with more than a VAT percentage correlation.  Put differently, the so-called business people cry VAT (and government), while seizing every opportunity to tack on some more pain on the public.  That water stop of mine is one such instance.

In these circumstances, the consumer has to be conscious of fake products, frauds behind the counters, rip-offs, and expiry dates, among other injurious matters.  These are not isolated occurrences.  Thus, the public must cease being armchair parliamentarians, and be on guard, know their rights and demand them.  Citizens must stop looking at government for all the answers; they ought to stop pidgey-winging and look out for their own interests.

Similarly, legitimate entrepreneurs, of whom they are a paltry few, must be aware of the deviousness of the competition, and the resulting severe disadvantage that accrues to honest participants.  They do know.  Businesspeople have shared how they pointed out to the GRA, complete with supporting documentation, where the treasury is being robbed.  This vagabondage is through creative customs declarations and under invoicing that is not realistic and camouflage law-breaking.

My understanding is that matters were either diluted or ducked, and a mere slap on the wrist was meted out to the (repeat) perpetrators.  They were allowed to amend documents; no penalties.  This masquerade cannot continue.

The Commissioner General of the GRA is put on notice that he and his mighty entity are both under the microscope; it is a highly calibrated one.  In view of the amount of pain to be experienced by the poor, and which has started, the gamesmen must be held accountable.  These would be both inside and outside of the GRA.  Suffering citizens must not be made to feel the squeeze, while collaborating public servants and their private sector partners prosper.

Last, the government has its own role to perform.  This country needs a watchful, assertive, and vibrant consumer protection body; perhaps several.

The public must have a reputable and principled place to record violations and issues, which are bound to proliferate in 2017.  This body must be privately operated; it should, however, benefit from some level of government funding.  Such funding would enable staffing, investigating, and publicizing problem practices and problem businesses.

I am quick to recognize that talk of funding will find the government wallet empty, or that it has vanished.  Still, I believe that government financial input would facilitate buying a lot of muscle on the cheap, and with minimal political exposure.  The key is an alert consuming public, ethical and competitive businesspeople, and a dynamic consumer agency to smooth the rough roads ahead.  In fact, those roads are here already.

Yours faithfully,

GHK Lall

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