Consumers should be vigilant and smart while the trader should be fair and reasonable
The festive season has begun and the citizens are testing their buying power with regard to consumer items. Almost every citizen is a consumer and is in the clutches of the trader, industrialist and the regulators; like the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA). This authority is the most powerful institution. According to the definition of the CAA, the consumer is any actual or potential user of any goods or services made available for consideration by any trader or manufacturer (S75 of The Consumer Affairs Authority Act). This shows that almost every citizen is a consumer and needs protection of the State to guard him or herself against unfair trade actions which pose problems to life and property of consumers. This act ensures that consumers have adequate access to goods and aids them to seek redress against unfair trade practices (Section seven of the act No 2003).
With the new trends on digitalization, local and foreign platforms such as E-Bay, the use of credit cards, online banking and online purchases in the modern consumerism have become complicated with little checks and balances being made, to benefit the consumer. According to The UK and EU 40% of the consumers make online purchases and have storage facilities in stores in mega chains and outside. This happens at a time when Sri Lanka is lagging behind with few online groups such as Singer,Wow.lk, Ikman.lk and a few others. There are foreign platforms such as Ebey, Amerzon and Alibaba. Similar international platforms are thriving in Sri Lanka, even without payment platforms such as PayPal; which are commonly used in the West. The Sri Lankan consumer is internet literate with almost every citizen armed with a mobilephone with high density of internet penetration countrywide. It is surprisingly fast driven disproportionately to the economic developments!
If the consumer is sharp and careful, it is easy to beat the cost of living
Is the consumer powerful and a King?
In other part of the world these facilities are available, but not in Sri Lanka. The CAA is bound to promote consumer organisations and the best practices for trade based on competition law and practices. In Sri Lanka, where the consumer is not organised as in other parts of the world, the citizen is helpless and exploited as stated by “Kennedy” in 1983. He said that the consumer includes us all and added that “the largest economic group affecting and affected by almost all public and private economic decisions are the consumers and they are the only important group whose views are often not heard”.
Sri Lanka is full of adulterated and poisonous food, vegetables, fruits, and other consumer items. These unhealthy food chains operate locally and have a foreign influence. Mega goods are adulterated hence the downgrading of food. Unhealthy food include international cola, chicken and junk foods which businesses are thriving worldwide. These foods contribute to terminal cancer and there is no proper control of the quality and price. People expect these consumer items to be monitored by the main regulator, the CAA. In the west businesses follow the best practices and they are regulated and supervised by (DTI) Department of Trade and Industry. This is done to protect the consumer and the trader. Poor and unhealthy food is circulating through 50,000 food outlets with little or no regulation from the part of the CAA. The absence of a proper network to monitor the consumer movement has added to the problem.CAA - the Main Regulator
It was established in place of the Fair Trading Consumer Act no. 1 of 1987 and Price Control Act 1 of 1987 to promote effective competition and to protect the consumer. The CAA has a blend of UK, Australian and Western modelled concepts and was created as a main regulator to regulate trade under S9 of the Act. The authority has the power to undertake studies, issue directions, restrict selling above market price, determine standards, inquire into complaints, enter into agreements, deal with offences such as refusal to sell, hoarding goods, investigations publication, prevent what’s misleading and deceptive conduct apart from having many more powers. Due to the abolishing of price control under the Price Control Act, the new concept of price making was introduced with every trader being expected to exhibit the price tag and maintain standards of items sold (S29). It is left to the consumer to judge the effectiveness of the enforcement mechanism in maintaining the price and the standards of the consumer items. Whether the CAA is competent in beating the cost of living or if it is a toothless organisation, is a matter for the citizens to decide based on the performances of the organisation.Beating cost of living
The cost of living is a relative term which depends on conditions, environments and jurisdictions. Rarely the prices of consumer articles are reduced, but the salary and income increases from time to time. The price of rice or bread is not static, but the consumer is ready to adopt price fluctuations. In the west, a major portion of the salary or income is utilised for accommodation. The food items are generally affordable, which is not the case in Sri Lanka. In the UK, one could be comfortable living with the minimum wages and in addition there are Government subsidiaries offered where necessary.
In Sri Lanka, though salaries and incomes are limited for many, traditional food items such as jack-fruit, leaves and village-grown items (available in “Polas” AKA street markets in towns) assist consumers to make ends meet. If the consumer is sharp and careful, it is easy to beat the cost of living provided that the cost of a mobile phone, tuition fees and extravagance spending are restricted. In short, one should know (a) when to buy (b) where to buy, (c) how to buy and (c) what to buy. In England the apple at Selfridges – the most expensive food chain – could be purchased on the street market near the store for a lesser price. In Sri Lanka, street markets are plenty and food can be carefully purchased and stored to be used later. Consumers make the biggest blunders by eating out at food chains with unhealthy oily food and colas; inviting long-term diseases. Consumers should be trained to buy healthy food at identified outlets. It is an exercise one should practise. A civic duty
It is the duty of the state to look into the health conditions of the food in the interest of the citizen. Consumers should be alert
Ideally, the CAA is expected to entertain complaints via the phone and the internet. Complaints can come from all over the country. This applies to all consumer items and to services as well. In other parts of the world the consumer is so well organised that the trader is under pressure and the control is with the consumer. The media plays a vital role in this matter. In the UK when a cola company used the water from Thames River, it is the media that came forward as in the Bopal case in India to expose unfair trade practices of multinational companies.
In Sri Lanka, the CAA is expected to organise a consumer federation to assist the consumer. It is the duty of the NGOs to take the mantel forward without wasting time on human rights situations in Sri Lanka; given that the island maintains the highest HR standards. It is time for the citizens to organise themselves to beat the cost of living and to lead a careful, systemic, planned and organised life with other fellow citizens. Be cautious
It is illegal to perform bogus sales and overprice consumer items especially during the festive season. Consumers have no right to demand price reductions, but they have the right to purchase quality and healthy goods. Citizens may complain to the 1919 services, CAA and the Board of Standards with regard to issues relating to the quality and the price of consumer items. A joint exercise should be launched by the CAA in organising the trader, manufacturer, industrialist and the citizen to work together. All parties should operate in a competitive but a friendly environment to beat the cost of living and to ensure that quality and healthy consumer items are available at a reasonable price. Way forwards
It is the right of the citizen and the duty of the State to ensure that the consumer should be able to purchase quality items at a reasonable price. It is the duty of the state to look into the health conditions of the food in the interest of the citizen. Consumers should be alert and the trader should be supervised by the main regulators in the presence of a powerful consumer movement assisted by the Media and the State regulators. This should be done in the interest of the helpless and needy consumers who are at the receiving end. Steps must be taken to avoid substandard goods being sold and discourage junk food from entering the market. Such foods expose the young generation to health risks. This generation is exposed to Obesity, Type 2 diabetes’, dental decay, heart and all kinds diseases.
It is illegal to perform bogus sales and overprice consumer items especially during the festive season. Consumers have no right to demand price reductions, but they have the right to purchase quality and healthy goods
The United Nations too have recognised the right to satisfaction and ensures the basic needs, safety, information, a chance to be heard, redress, consumer education and a healthy environment, as rights and requirements to be facilitated for the consumer/citizen by the State.
It is the duty and a statutory requirement of the main regulator, CAA, to organise consumer organisations and to work on a joint project with the consumer, state, trader, manufacturer and the citizen to have a fair and reasonable system of trade and business for a better life for the consumer. Consumers should be vigilant and smart while the trader should be fair and reasonable. The State should be efficient so as to ensure a better day for the consumer/citizen.(The writer is a a former Chairman of the Consumer Affairs Authority and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)