Saturday, 26 October 2013

Dear Minister (an open letter to the Minister of Trade and Industry)

Dear Minister

We can be justifiably proud of our consumer protection legislation. It’s well written, fairly comprehensive and, above all, easy to understand.

The Consumer Protection Act, the Control of Goods Act, the Food Control Act, the Public Health Regulations, the various laws relating to banking, copyright, labelling and the creation of NBFIRA have all given us powerful tools with which to protect ourselves.

Much of the credit for this must go to the Attorney General’s Chambers for drafting such laws and regulations but credit must also be given to your Ministry for understanding how best to protect the consumers of Botswana.

However, despite all of these protections there are nevertheless gaps in our current legislative framework.

The first is obvious. With a few honourable exceptions we don’t see sufficient enforcement of these laws. Of course this doesn’t mean that enforcement isn’t actually happening, I mean that it isn’t being SEEN to happen.

All newspaper readers will be familiar with the occasional notices from NBFIRA warning the public about the rules that various industries must abide by, rulings on certain companies or even general warnings about scams and companies with dubious business practices. They’ll probably have seen similar notices from BOTA about suspicious “colleges”. More recently they will also have seen some remarkably detailed rulings from DCEC on their investigations, even naming certain individuals who have been discovered to have engaged in corrupt practices.

This is what the public want and what they deserve: to see enforcement being done.

Unfortunately we don’t see nearly enough from the other enforcement agencies, in particular from the Consumer Protection Unit within your Ministry. I know that they do much valuable work but I think we deserve to SEE them doing this work. We deserve to see reports on their activities in the press. Not only would this assure us that they are fulfilling their mandate but it would also educate us, the people who fund their activities, much further on our rights and obligations as consumers.

The Consumer Protection Regulations are a powerful tool but they are beginning to show their age and there are gaps in their coverage that I believe need to be filled.

In particular we need protection against the massive upsurge in recent years of business and investment opportunities that clearly make false promises about the income and profits that can be made. For instance the Eurextrade Ponzi scheme that collapsed in February this year was targeted specifically at Botswana and was aggressively marketed within the country by its local representatives. They claimed that the scheme could offer “up to 2.9% daily” which is clearly nonsensical but we know of many people who lost their entire savings to this scam. Slightly less malign are the multi-level or network marketing schemes that offer a false opportunity to make money from the recruitment of multiple levels of people beneath each recruit. The evidence that these promises are false can be seen in the figures these companies are forced to publish in other countries, showing that only a very tiny minority of recruits make any profits at all and the vast majority make a loss.

I propose an addition to the Consumer Protection Regulations in the list of “acts of unfair business practice” along the following lines:
“advertising business or employment opportunities with claims of income or profits that cannot be readily substantiated“
Finally I think there is an urgent need to include a couple of protections that have been overlooked: “cooling off” periods and an absolute right to clarity in contracts.

Cooling off periods are an essential protection for consumers. Some might argue that consumers who make rash decisions should pay the price but there are many situations when they are pressurized and manipulated by sales people into taking unwise decisions. I believe they need an opportunity to change their minds.

Suppliers will argue that cooling off periods will inconvenience them and will cost them money recovering their goods, but we can protect them from that. The cost of the return can be taken from the deposit the customer gave the store when they signed the agreement.

Some countries, such as South Africa, provide limited cooling off periods but only for direct selling, not when the consumer initiated the purchase. Other countries provide such periods in a wider range of circumstances. This is an area where we are lagging behind and I think we need to be a step ahead. I propose the following as a starting point:
“Any agreement relating to a sale of goods on any form of deferred payment shall contain a statement explaining that the customer may cancel the agreement in writing within 5 days of signature of that agreement. Any penalties applied by the supplier as a result of the cancellation may not exceed the amount of any deposit made when the agreement was signed.”
We also need to insist that stores, particularly those who sell on credit or hire purchase are much, much clearer about the content of their contracts and what will happen if the customer experiences problems repaying. We hear regularly from consumers who genuinely seemed not to understand how their agreements worked and who often end up impoverished as a result. I suggest the following:
"It shall be an unfair business practice for any supplier who offers products or services for sale by way of any form of deferred payment not to clearly and completely explain to customers, in writing and before the customer signs any agreement, the details of the agreement, the penalties that might be applied and obligations incurred in the event of default of payment, and the remedies available to the customer in the event of failure by the supplier to deliver the products or service in any way."
We require only very small changes to our existing legal framework in order to offer our neighbours, friends and family the protections they deserve.

As always, Consumer Watchdog remains at your disposal.

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