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Who will champion consumer rights

CAROL MARTINDALE, [email protected]

Who will champion consumer rights

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CONSUMERS IN BARBADOS need a creditable, independent, apolitical voice to protect their interests more than ever.
This is evident, given the sustained allegations of price gouging at supermarkets without the input of a separate research body to furnish any facts on this matter.  An efficient, well organized consumers’ entity would be able to furnish evidence to show how prices rose on specific items at individual businesses in the last three years. With this proof, Barbadians would have been spared the present drama of accusations and counterclaims from Government ministers and business people, with no definitive action to tackle the problem identified.
High food prices and possible price gouging are not the only matters a consumers’ body is needed to deal with. There is the CLICO International Life debacle, in which the company has admitted it could have difficulties paying the $300 million in Executive Flexible Premium Annuities – short term deposits with high interest rates – when most become due in 2012.  
The company’s officials have since been bombarded by their policyholders for answers, but few have been forthcoming, prompting one of them to write in a letter to the editor in the SUNDAY SUN: “Let us . . . use Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, or whatever social media we use, to let them know that even though we are silent for the most part, we are not ignorant.
“I want my money back. I do not want 50 cents in the dollar. I do not want ten cents in the dollar, or no cents in the dollar. I want what I gave them: hard-earned dollars.”
Another current hot issue that an independent consumers’ body would be able to tackle is the imposition of service fees on inactive accounts by commercial banks. This week, John Beale, Barbados’ Ambassador in Washington and a former president and chief executive officer of Republic Bank of Trinidad and Tobago in Barbados, charged that these fees were unjustifiable and unreasonable.
Of course, our call is not intended to discount the valuable contribution and commendable efforts through the years of the Barbados Consumer Research Organization under its director general Malcolm Gibbs-Taitt. Rather, we are saying that a more potent, well staffed organization with no hint of political affiliation would be best suited to undertake the yeoman task of representing consumers in these tempestuous times.
In Barbados today, consumers are like a voice crying in the wilderness. They complain of feeling cheated in many ways by being overcharged and having substandard goods foisted on them, with little or no recourse to relief.
True, there is the Fair Trading Commission, and this has served a useful purpose. However, it is not the effective deterrent one needs to halt the exploitation of consumers in various ingenious ways by some business people. Unfortunately, its quasi-Government status lends itself to a weighty bureaucracy and lengthy delays.
We need instead a non-governmental agency staffed by professionals who can articulate grievances in quick time and respond in a timely fashion, and, if need be, galvanize support from powerful groups like the Barbados Association of Retired Persons and the credit union movement to lobby on specific issues. We envisage, too, that this entity would not only deal with pricing but also seek to demand higher standards for services and products.
As consumers are already burdened by the high cost of living, the least that could be done on their behalf is to ensure that they get value for money. And that’s where a vibrant consumers’ body comes in.