Saturday 21 June 2014

Your rights

I was asked recently to comment on the state of consumer rights in Botswana. The person asking the question seemed surprised when I said I thought we were very well protected. At least in principle.

In fact we have an enormous array of rights that have been put there to protect us, covering almost everything we do with our money and our lives.

For instance a fundamental right we have as consumers, one sometimes overlooked or ignored by some stores, is that when we buy something that later goes wrong we’re entitled to one of the Three ‘R’s: a Refund, a Repair or a Replacement. No excuses are permitted, we are entitled to one of these solutions.

However something consumers often overlook is that we don’t always get to decide which of these we get. Generally speaking that’s up to the store to decide. For instance if you buy a new cellphone and it goes wrong shortly afterwards you can’t just storm into the store and demand a complete refund. Instead you’re obliged to give the store the opportunity to try and fix it. If you think about it, that’s only fair. It might be a tiny fault that they can fix very quickly.

It’s only when the store can’t easily fix it or that they take way too long to do so that I think you’re entitled to demand one of the other “R’s, either a replacement or a refund.

Obviously there’s only a limited time in which you’re entitled to one of these remedies. That’s why you should always ask how long the warranty is on the item you buy. Most electronic devices like cellphones are sold with a 1-year manufacturer’s warranty meaning that if it goes wrong in that first year the manufacturer will allow the retailer to return it to them. Some manufacturers offer even longer periods. The problem is that it’s quite easy for a retailer themselves to breach the manufacturer’s warranty if they sell an item outside of the region it was made for. This is the so-called “grey import” market. A store in Botswana will buy a load of items from a distributor in somewhere like Dubai and then sell them in Botswana, neglecting to tell their customers that the manufacturer’s warranty only covers the items in the Middle East, not southern Africa. That’s why you occasionally see a sign in a store saying that they only offer a 3-month or perhaps only a 1-month warranty. In fact there’s no manufacturer’s warranty at all, the store itself is offering it’s own, homegrown, perhaps even amateur, guarantee.

You need to think very carefully before buying any item that doesn’t have a full manufacturer’s warranty. Very carefully indeed.

Unfortunately even when you alert a company to a problem that doesn’t always mean you’ll get a quick response. We heard from a reader last week who returned an item to a clothing store in February 2012 and was still waiting for their P200 back and was being verbally abused by the store’s staff every time she called to remind them. Luckily after a few phone calls and messages from Consumer Watchdog she got her money but it shows how far certain companies will go to avoid their obligations.

You also have a right to expect a supplier take responsibility when things go wrong, even if it’s not actually their fault. We heard recently from a consumer who called in BTC to transfer their telephone line when they moved house but while the technicians were at the house a phone went missing. Very smartly the consumer called the technician and made up a story that he had covert video footage of his team stealing the phone and 30 minutes later the phone was returned to him. We contacted BTC and it soon emerged that the technicians weren’t in fact from BTC at all but from one of their sub-contractors and the thief was just someone who accompanied the sub-contractor to the house to help out. Clearly this wasn’t actually BTC’s fault but they nevertheless took the situation extremely seriously and I imagine the sub-contractor is now being very contrite and apologetic. If he knows what’s good for his business that is.

Above all we have a right to the truth when we do business. We have a right to buy things that do what the vendor says they do. We have a right to be told technical facts that back up a claim made by the vendor. We have a right to be told if an item is new, second-hand or previously used. We have a right to be told the terms and conditions of a contract, most importantly in language we understand. We have a right to be told and a right to decline if any of our rights are going to be ignored. We have a right to know our obligations as well as our rights.

The original question I was asked was whether we’re well protected and my answer was that yes, we were. In principle.

Just not always in practice.

The problem is that we don’t see nearly enough enforcement of these protections. Yes, there are exceptions. The Bureau of Standards, BQA and NBFIRA are all busily doing their best but we don’t see enough action from those empowered to enforce our basic rights like the quality of food and the basic standards of service in stores.

However there’s only one way to encourage greater enforcement and that’s public pressure from people like you and me who pay the enforcers’ wages. Are you prepared to help?

Or would you prefer to remain unprotected? It’s up to you.

No comments: