THE ISSUE: Constant need to be vigilant
IT IS POSSIBLY UNKNOWN to many Barbadian consumers that January 2, 2001 and January 16, 2003 are important dates for them. On the first date, the Fair Trading Commission (FTC) began operations, replacing the Public Utilities Board (PUB) that had been operational since 1955.
While the PUB was widely known as regulator of electricity and telephone utilities, it was felt that there was a need for an entity with a wider role that included fair competition and consumer rights.
This brings us to January 16, 2003, when the Consumer Protection Act was enacted. The FTC said “the purpose of this act is to safeguard the rights of consumers in areas such as unfair trade practices, unfair contract terms and misleading and deceptive conduct”.
“The overall objective of the division is to ensure that the market place is working well and that consumers’ welfare is improved.”
Protecting consumer rights is covered in various ways. These include encouraging and educating businesses to comply with the Consumer Protection Act, empowering consumers with knowledge so they can make informed decisions, examining all consumer related materials including advertisements, examining contracts to ensure the terms and conditions were fair, and conducting enquiries into alleged breaches of the consumer protection legislation.
“In the event of a dispute, at first instance the division attempts to facilitate an amicable resolution between the parties. Where there is no resolution, and a breach of the law is found, the Commission may take the matter to court,” the regulator explained.
In establishing the FTC and its related legislation, Barbados made major strides. However, it is not the only layer of protection, as other Government agencies, including the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, also play an important role. The overall apparatus includes a Consumer Claims Tribunal and the Office of Public Counsel.
A recent report from the Consumer Claims Tribunal showed that between January and June last year, this “small claims court” held 18 sittings and adjudicated 31 cases compared to 28 sittings and 47 cases during the same period in 2014.
“During the review period . . . 15 cases were resolved with a total of $19 027 being awarded to 13 consumers, compared to 19 cases being resolved with a total of $33 721 being awarded to 13 consumers for the same period during 2014.”
It added that “three cases were dismissed/withdrawn during the review period while six cases were dismissed/withdrawn during the same period during 2014”.
There are still some countries which do not have such laws and provisions to protect consumers.
There is a view, however, that as some business enterprises around the world seek to circumvent such protection, there is a continual need to be vigilant.
This is so, also, in the current climate of mergers and acquisitions, and economic difficulty when consumers may feel powerless if they think they are short-changed by organisations they do business with.
The need for consumer bodies established by consumers themselves is also a key part of ensuring vigilance.
That has been viewed as a shortcoming in Barbados in the recent past. The expectation that the Barbados and wider Caribbean economy will improve this year suggests that consumers are likely to have more spending power.
Research by Antilles Economics has already shown that Barbadians have been regaining their spending appetite.