Friday 23 November 2007

Dear Minister

As you are aware the Consumer Protection Act places various obligations upon your Ministry. The Act, in it’s own words, seeks to “provide for the protection of the interests of consumers by means of investigation, prohibition and control of unfair business practice”. This Act, which has existed for almost 10 years, also states that you, as the Minister, can authorise Regulations that prescribe exactly how businesses may operate in order to safeguard the interests of consumers. These Regulations were finally approved in 2001.

Section 5 (3) of the Act states that the Consumer Protection Office may “permit and consider representations made by any consumer organisation or movement on any matter of consumer protection”.

Please therefore accept this letter as a formal representation from Consumer Watchdog regarding various business practices that we believe require urgent and decisive action in order to prevent the abuse of consumers in Botswana.

For instance Section 17 (1) (d) of the Regulations states that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier causes “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”.

We believe that a good example of this is a locally-based company who include a clause in their contracts that states that the contract is “irrevocable”. This company then typically refuses to allow customers ever to withdraw from the contract. Furthermore this company refuses to allow the customer to even see and review this contract before they sign it. This strikes us as a very clear case where the “probability of confusion” is very high. We believe that action is required to make sure that consumers are protected from such deception.

The Regulations also state in Section 17 (1) (g) that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier takes advantage “of a consumer's inability reasonably to protect his interests by reason of ... inability to understand the language of an agreement presented by the other party to the transaction who knows or reasonably should know of the consumer's inability”.

In simple terms if a customer is presented with a contract written in English and that customer obviously does not have a good command of English then the supplier has committed an unfair business practice. We believe that action is required to prevent this abuse.

Section 15 (1) (c) states that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier offers a commodity promising “outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis”. We see an enormous number of advertisements for health products that clearly fail this test. Whether for weight loss, asthma or, most worryingly, for boosting the immune system, these products clearly have no scientific basis that can be demonstrated.

These products are deceptive, exploitative and extremely dangerous given the health status of many of our families, friends and neighbours. We believe that action is urgently required.

Another key piece of legislation is the Control of Goods, Prices and Other Charges Act that originally commenced in 1973. This Act, amongst other things, enables you, as the Minister, to regulate the marking of goods for sale to the public.

The Regulations that followed this Act offer one very important protection that is almost completely overlooked by stores. When goods are offered for sale either on hire purchase or on credit the store is obliged to state not only the number and amount of the instalments and the deposit, but critically they are also obliged to disclose “in characters of similar size” the “total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”.

As any consumer will be able to tell you this is almost unheard of. The newly enforced South African National Credit Act gives South Africans this right but we have had this protection for 33 years.

We recently wrote to all the stores that offer goods on credit and so far only one of them has confirmed that they will change their advertising and labelling to meet this obligation. The remainder appear to plan to ignore this regulation. It appears that they plan to continue to show contempt for their customers and the laws of the country within which they operate.

In summary we believe that the consumers of Botswana are very well equipped with legal protections that far outstrip those of our neighbours. However we deserve to have these protections actively enforced.

Both the Consumer Protection Act and the Control of Goods, Prices and Other Charges Act empower your Ministry to actively enforce these various regulations. Furthermore they prescribe a range of actions your Ministry can undertake with organisations to ensure that they obey the law. This ranges from a power to summon stores to give evidence, to search and seize documents and goods, to institute court proceedings and even to appoint a curator to take over the running of businesses where consumer interests require that level of protection. Of course a store that ignores the powers or actions of your Ministry may then face criminal proceedings as a result.

We believe that the consumers of Botswana need greater intervention by your Ministry and the active enforcement of the various Regulations that have been approved. If we at Consumer Watchdog can help your officers in any way we will place ourselves at their disposal. The evidence we possess is freely available to you and your departments.

We look forward to hearing from you.

With best regards

The Consumer Watchdog Team

This week’s stars!

  • Letsweletse and Thobega at Total Filling Station at Game City for service with a smile.
  • Boikgopolo Letlamoreng at Lesedi Motors for going above and beyond the call of duty.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

No comments: