As Sri Lanka joins the international community in marking the World Consumer Rights Day and week it would be good to remind ourselves of what we are talking about when we speak of consumer rights. According to Consumers’ International, a global movement, March 15 is World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD), an annual occasion for celebration and solidarity within the international consumer movement.
It marks the date in 1962 when United States President John F. Kennedy first gave a powerful and challenging definition of consumer rights. In a historic address to the US Congress President Kennedy said - “Consumers by definition, include us all. They are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet they are the only important group whose views are often not heard.
Two-thirds of all spending in the economy is by consumers. But they are the only important group who are not effectively organized, whose views are often not heard.”
He said any government, by nature the highest spokesperson for all the people, had a special obligation to be alert to the consumer’s needs and to advance the consumer’s interests. “Fortunate as we are, we nevertheless cannot afford waste in consumption any more than we can afford inefficiency in business or Government. If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumers are unable to choose on an informed basis, then their money is wasted, their health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers. On the other hand, increased efforts to make the best possible use of their incomes can contribute more to the well-being of most families than equivalent efforts to raise their incomes,” President Kennedy pointed out in a message which Sri Lanka’s National Government needs to reflect on seriously and implement effectively.
During the past few decades, the consumer movement has developed this vision into eight basic consumer rights that now define and inspire much of the work Consumers’ International and its members do. The first of these rights is the right to satisfaction of basic needs - to have access to basic, essential goods and services: adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, public utilities, water and sanitation.
The next is the right to safety - to be protected against products, production processes and services that are hazardous to health or life. Next comes the right to be informed - to be given the facts needed to make an informed choice, and to be protected against dishonest or misleading advertising and labelling. This is of particular significance to Sri Lanka because there appears to be no monitoring or regulation of marketing practices. For instance, in the pharmaceutical business, we see marketing representatives—most of whom have perhaps not gone anywhere near medical college—educating doctors on what drugs to give whom. Eventually the unsuspecting patient pays for this. Unethical marketing is widespread specially in relation to milk food for children. The government needs to implement strict laws to ensure that mothers and children are not misled into believing that if they do not consume a particular brand the child’s brain will not develop.
The next is the right to choose - to be able to select from a range of products and services, offered at competitive prices with an assurance of satisfactory quality. When we read this and write this we realise how much our rights are violated and how little the government is doing to counter it while consumers also need to come together, even get onto the street and protest as politicians are doing these days.
There is also the right to be heard - to have consumer interests represented in the making and execution of government policy, and in the development of products and services. Again it’s a case of the precept being there but practically it means little or nothing to the people. Big companies after funding election campaigns or other propaganda, work out deals with the government. They need to realise that without consumer participation it is like food without salt.
There is also the right to redress - to receive a fair settlement of just claims, including compensation for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services. It is a shame that in most cases these are mere words and we cannot eat them. There is also the right to consumer education and the right to a healthy environment.
We hope that during this week the government would take some action to take these rights out of the waste paper basket and put them on the shelves.