15 March is World Consumers’ Rights Day (WCRD), an annual occasion for celebration, impact and global solidarity within the international consumer movement. Each year, consumer organisations mark WCRD by joining together to highlight and raise awareness of an issue that is important to consumers around the world. The theme of WCRD 2017 is ‘Building a Digital World Consumers can Trust.’ On this occasion, News on Sunday has called upon Mr Mosadeq Sahebdin, the president of Consumer Advocacy Platform (CAP) to comment on the current situation and on the need for increased consumer protection.
What is your main focus for this year’s WCRD celebrations?
Thank you for giving CAP this opportunity to express itself on the occasion of the World Consumers’ Rights Day. Locally, it is an opportunity to sensitize consumers on their rights and the need to stand up for these rights. The Consumer Advocacy Platform has called upon the Information Communications and Technologies Authority (ICTA) to initiate action to implement the concept of number portability. CAP has also requested for information about the ICT Advisory Council. CAP would like to know if this Council is in operation and if so, who the representatives of consumers are. Portability had been mentioned as far back as 2003, then taken up again in 2013 during the migration exercise to 8 digits, but has never been given full attention, nor has it been subjected to serious consultations with the consumer organizations.
What is number portability and what are its advantages?
Number portability enables consumers to switch from one telephone operator to the other without the hassle of changing their phone numbers. Number portability has many advantages for consumers. Such possibility will enhance competition among service providers and hence enhance the quality of service and bring down tariffs. Number portability also contributes to poverty alleviation in making telephone services more accessible. Furthermore, consumers need not buy several mobile phones to benefit from advantageous tariffs, nor to buy expensive mobiles carrying two SIM-cards. Consumers are also liberated of the fears of losing mobile phones when they have more than one piece of equipment with them. CAP is of opinion that many consumers are not aware of number portability and its advantages. It is therefore willing to develop, with ICTA, a strategy to educate consumers on this issue.
What is CAP doing to sensitize local consumers on price control in supermarkets?
First of all, it should be understood that there are many factors which influence prices, some of which are beyond Government control and others which are not regulated by law. We should also underline that CAP is in favour of competition among retailers. Because competition brings a wider choice of products, better quality and lower prices. However, CAP has observed that some prices may be subjected to back door commercial practices that may cause prices to be artificially higher. For example, we know that most supermarkets impose on distributors conditions that affect prices directly. This is not an exclusively local tendency. The question was raised at the last Intergovernment Expert meeting on Competition at the level of UNCTAD. Competition authorities are not sure whether such practices are anticompetitive.
At the grass root level, however, CAP has initiated consumer education programmes in some colleges and on the national TV. Our four series of programmes, Konsom’ Aksion in Kreol and Grahak Ki Adhikar in Bhojpuri, were greatly appreciated and inspired many consumers. At the same time, through a regular feature in a local newspaper, we lead consumers to compare prices of similar products to enable them to make an informed choice.
Are you satisfied with the work accomplished by Consumer Affairs Unit? What should be done for a better service?
It is known that the CAU has limited resources, whether financial or in terms of manpower. In the absence of a strong initiative to overhaul this Unit, consumers will continue to be fleeced. We need a strong National Consumer Protection Policy and vigorous consumer laws to enhance consumer protection in this country. One other possible orientation would be the inclusion of consumer protection under the Competition Commission, such as is the case in Zambia and many other countries. The Zambia Consumer and Competition Commission, for example, is responsible for consumer protection and competition law enforcement.
The proposal for a Consumer Protection Policy is not new. Why does CAP continue to lobby government on this subject?
First of all, the absence of a National Consumer Protection Policy, consumers’ rights may not be reckoned by other ministries than the ministry responsible for the implementation of the Consumer Protection Act. For example, patients’ right to information is not recognised by the Ministry of Health, which refuses patients’ access to their medical files. Another example, the right to choice is refused to consumers, who have to insure their children on school premises.
Secondly, it should be underlined, that the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection, which serves as a bible for all consumer organisations, is yet to be ratified by Mauritius. It should be noted that the UN Guideline provides for consumer protection in three new areas, namely financial services, online purchasing and the exchange of personal information. Furthermore, the UN Guidelines innovates in providing for the setting up of an Intergovernmental Expert meeting on Consumer Protection, along the same lines as the expert meeting on Competition. Such an annual meeting will help government ensure that local legislation is keeping up with international trends. Unfortunately, it is now eleven years since we are waiting to see the Consumer Protection and Fair Trading law to be adopted.
What is CAP’s views on the recent rise in fuel prices? Is the Rs 4 per gallon levy justified?
The Consumer Advocacy Platform was the first to demand that a sunset clause or an expiry date be set for this levy. Consumers should know up to when this levy will be in force. This will enable them to be informed of what has been achieved concretely with their contributions. Lack of transparency in the calculation of the Petroleum Pricing Committee and the absence of a Freedom of Information Act confound consumers. In the absence of such a clause, consumers should be expected to be fleeced for many more years to come. We do not believe that the opposition parties, when and if they come back to power, will scrap this item from the pricing mechanism for petroleum products.
What is the main message of CAP on the occasion of World Consumers’ Rights Day?
We wish, on this World Consumers’ Rights Day, to call upon consumers to stand up for their rights and to use their position as electors to urge their representatives in Parliament to support and campaign in favour of the presentation and adoption of the new Consumer Protection and Fair Trading Act the sooner possible. We would also call upon the decision-makers to initiate action in view of the formulation and adoption of a National Consumer Policy so that we do not lag behind.