Saturday 14 April 2007

Basic standards

Last week I promised some action on the subject of protecting ourselves from unscrupulous businesses. However much as I believe this is an area where private sector bodies such as Consumer Watchdog can play a role I do also believe that this is one of a few situations where we should be demanding actions from our Government.

Their huge resources can play a critical role in educating us on our rights and the remedies. They, after all, employ tens of thousands of people and better still, have staggering amounts of money to spend on education, not just of our kids but us grown-ups as well. They perhaps just need a slight nudge to get out there and do it. As I mentioned last week I think that Consumer Protection Unit officers should be out there amongst us in kgotla meetings, PTA meetings and special consumer rights awareness road shows. It’s one of the things they are meant to do.

The Ministry of Education has whole teams of people that can help the Consumer Protection people with this. The Department of Non-Formal Education is there to develop education strategies that work outside of schools and colleges. Surely with the combination of their education expertise and the skills and powers of Consumer Protection Office we can assemble a formidable force that can raise public awareness, give us knowledge and skills and (Oh how I hate using this terrible word) “empower” us?

So what exactly can the Consumer Protection people do for us?

The Consumer Protection Act says it clearly. Amongst other things it is their job to:

“disseminate information to enable consumers to acquire knowledge of basic consumer rights and obligations and the skills needed to make informed choices about goods and services”

Better still they should:

“formulate and implement consumer education programmes”.

But like I said this is an area where Government have a role to play, not necessarily one where they are the ONLY people who can do something. We don’t always need them to do anything in order for consumers to benefit. We can do a lot ourselves. I suspect that in most cases just suggesting to suppliers that we know our rights and that we know where we can take complaints will be enough to make them cooperate and to help us solve the service problems we encounter.

All it takes is a little knowledge of what the law says. You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand this. The Consumer Protection Regulations are actually a pretty good example of a law that is expressed in simple terms, simple language that can be understood by us simple people.

For instance, the Regulations make it perfectly clear that there are minimum standards for things that we buy. In fact there will be a major problem for a supplier if something they sell us:

i) does not match any sample or description given to the consumer;

ii) is not fit for any particular purpose made known by the consumer; or

iii) is not of merchantable quality;

Perfectly simple and there are no get-out clauses, no excuses that a supplier can make. There are no exceptions for foreign companies, no exceptions for small companies, no exceptions for companies that are having a hard time making ends meet this month. Simply no exceptions.

Incidentally, what does “merchantable quality” mean? It is something that is:

“fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”

In other words, something you buy must do what a reasonable person would expect it to do. If you buy a bakkie you are never going to break any speed records but it should allow you to transport a reasonable quantity of goods from A to B without the suspension breaking. If you buy a microwave oven it should be able to heat food.

That clause about being “fit for any particular purpose made known by the consumer” is also pretty useful. If you make it clear that you want to buy something for a particular purpose then tell the supplier that. If you can get the supplier to put it in writing as well then, even better. If for some reason they refuse to do that then you would be right to be suspicious.

One clause that I particularly like is the one that says that basic standards have NOT been met if:

“the supplier quotes scientific or technical data in support of a claim unless the data can be readily substantiated”

So where does this leave the alternative health store I walked past a few days ago that is advertising an “oxygen supplement”? Apparently we need to start buying this meaningless rubbish because in the past oxygen levels in the atmosphere were 38% but now, because of pollution and industrialisation have fallen to 21%. Now this simply isn’t true. It maybe true that hundreds of thousands of years ago oxygen levels were higher but that was before human beings were here to breathe it. Taking ridiculous supplements that apparently raise our blood oxygen levels is just plain silly and the advertising from these charlatans is contrary to the Consumer Protection Regulations. Who wants to complain to the authorities or should I go first?

This week’s stars!

  • Sergeant PC Dzwikiti, who, while on duty at Parliament, was extremely courteous, helpful and friendly.
  • Paul from Trojan Security at Riverwalk for being really friendly.
  • Lebo at whatever the Grand Palm Hotel is called these days for being a star.
  • The manager at Excitement Stores at Riverwalk for really helpful and friendly service.

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