Tuesday 19 May 2009

Who can help?

Who can you turn to for help when things go wrong, when you’ve been abused, when you’re unhappy or when you think your rights have been ignored?

Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. You can have the bad news first.

You can’t rely on the Government to help you. In fact it’s the Public Service you can’t rely on. Government are very good at debating things at length, concluding that action is required and finally passing laws but that’s all they can do. It’s the Public Service who are then tasked with enforcing the law. It’s the Police that are meant to stop us from driving like lunatics with a death-wish, it’s the Ministry of Health who are meant to stop charlatans from claiming that they are doctors who practice a form of so-called traditional medicine and it’s the Consumer Protection Unit who are meant to protect consumers from the more flagrant breaches of the Consumer Protection Regulations.

It’s just a shame that none of these bodies seem to do any of these things. For once I don’t think we need to see statistics to show that they are failing us. Think about it. If the Police were actually serious about doing something about the dreadful quality of driving we simply wouldn’t see combi and BX drivers driving like homicidal maniacs because they were be too afraid to do so. If there was a real risk of being stopped and hassled by the cops if they went through a red light then they wouldn’t do it.

If the regulators of health claims were serious then you simply wouldn’t see advertisements from crooked so-called “traditional doctor” charlatans because they would be too afraid to advertise their illegal and dangerous concoctions.

If the Consumer Protection Unit was a real threat to stores that held Batswana in complete contempt then we wouldn’t see furniture stores being supremely arrogant and ignoring the laws relating to store credit and attempting to deceive consumers about their charges. We wouldn’t see holiday clubs forcing people to continue their membership until their dying day because they have them trapped in lifetime contracts. Contracts that are, in my humble, non-legally-trained, but well-advised opinion, illegal, immoral and an insult to their victims.

If our regulators were worth their cost then we would see them actually doing something rather than just reading the Daily News and surfing the web all day.

A quick bit of good news is that we do now have a regulator that isn’t afraid to regulate. The admittedly horribly named Non-Bank Financial Industry Regulatory Authority appears to be a regulator that isn’t afraid to regulate. It seems that every week there’s a notice in the newspapers from NBFIRA warning us that some disreputable insurance broker is no longer registered and that we shouldn’t use their services. That’s what regulators are there for. A regulator that doesn’t regulate is a waste of space and money. Regulators that don’t actually regulate should be closed down and the money should be saved and instead given to me to spend on wine, women and song. At least I’d be happy with the spending, I’m not at the moment.

The good news is that there ARE people you can call on when you feel wronged or abused.

No, for once I’m not going to praise us at Consumer Watchdog. No, while I think we can offer support and solutions (and all entirely for free), this time I mean someone else.

I mean you.

The consumer him or herself is the most powerful enforcer of rights. You might not have legal powers to enforce the law but you have something much more useful, a very effective weapon for controlling the behaviour of suppliers. Our money. Those suppliers desperately need our money. Particularly these days when the international economy is in decline, they are going to be even more desperate to part us from our money.

Of course in hard times the sensible suppliers will offer us discounts, easier repayment terms or perhaps even a free something extra to tempt us to buy from them rather than the store next door.

The less scrupulous scumbags will be the ones that try sneakier ways of getting our cash. No, let me correct that. Some of them are that sneaky already. The stores that refuse to obey the law and disclose the full cost of buying an item on credit before you buy, as the law requires, don’t need to get any sneakier, they are sneaky enough already. The clubs that don’t tell you that it’s a lifetime contract before you sign it are crooked enough. The cellphone stores that claim they don’t offer a warranty just because they feel like it are abusing us already. None of these groups of thugs needs to get any worse in order to classify as “sneaky”.

I think that the next couple of years might be some of the best times for consumers. Sure, we’re all going to need to tighten our belts a bit, be a little more prudent and do as our parents told us when we were growing up but the balance of power is going to shift slightly. It’s going to shift in our favour. Suppliers are going to have to try a lot harder to attract us.

We consumers might soon have the power to put a couple of the sneakier companies out of business. We might be able to get our own back on the suppliers that have abused us. Wouldn’t that be fun?

This week’s stars
  • Tapiwa and Tirelo, both from Aon Botswana for service above and beyond the call of duty and for “proving that it can be done”.

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