Consumer Rights Now What on Earth is That?

Location: one of Dhaka's busiest shopping malls. Time: evening and a weekday. Buying and selling is in full swing. In one of the CD stores an argument between a customer and the salesperson is in progress about returning a CD. The buyer, who bought it from the store two days ago, wants to return the CD, as he is not happy with the recording. At home while he was enjoying the latest release by a popular US band, the music suddenly skipped. You know how it feels when that happens. He is trying to establish his case to the salesperson. The salesperson meanwhile refuses to take back the CD and return the money. His argument is that “the customer must have mishandled the CD at home and besides it cost only Tk80, why make a huge fuss about only a CD”. This comment obviously heats up the customer to boiling point. But his enraged arguments cannot establish his right as a consumer, the right to return faulty goods.

Actually the entire set of that album has faulty recordings. The store owner bought the pirated copies from the neighbouring country and there is no way he could return them now. “We did not know about the faulty recordings at first. It's a huge lot, we have to salvage the money”, explains the salesperson who refused to comment at first. So, in order to retrieve the invested money he is a little dishonest.

Nazmun Nahar, working as a senior researcher in ICDDR, B gave us another story of consumer rights violation. She bought a huge bottle of her favourite lotion from one of Dhaka's most reputed superstores. “My sister gave me a bottle earlier that she bought from a duty free shop in Dubai. The one that I had bought from Dhaka had a foul odour”, she said. Like the customer in the CD shop, Nahar did not even fight her case. She did not return the bottle to the store because she thought it would only cause her more trouble, besides to get to Dhanmondi, where the store was located, she will have to take a CNG auto-rickshaw, which meant spending more money.

Consumer Rights is not just about being able to return faulty goods; there are many ways of violating it. It is a broad concept. In Bangladesh there is no legal definition that explains the rights of the consumers. So far in Bangladesh there are no laws covering the different areas of Consumer Rights. There are a few laws protecting some areas of food safety. One of them is the 38-year-old Bangladesh Pure Food Rules 1967. In September 2005, the government passed a bill in the parliament titled Bangladesh Pure Food (Amendment) Act, 2005. It is the amendment of Bangladesh Pure Food Ordinance 1959. The bill incorporated some tough provisions to the food ordinance, giving more teeth to the law to punish the offenders. However there is doubt about whether these tough provisions will succeed in improving the situation because no matter how sophisticated the laws are, proper implementation is always absent in Bangladesh.

Consumer Rights are always being abused in Bangladesh. In most economies the motto 'the customer is always right' is followed rigidly and consumer satisfaction is the highest priority for every manufacturer or retailer. Consumer rights are considered an integral part of human rights. Consumers in our country are still in the dark about their basic rights and obligations as consumers.

Sultan Ahmed was totally dissatisfied with a brand of anti-dandruff shampoo that he has been using. “Instead of getting rid of my flakes it got rid of my hair”; he complains. The only thing Ahmed could do was stop using the shampoo while on the other hand some actor in the TV ad was explaining how shiny and flake free his hair was after using the shampoo. TV advertisements often describe their products with glamour or use alluring terms to attract people. Using misleading words or making exaggerated claims about a product can be counted as misrepresentation of goods. A product must live up to the attributes claimed in an ad or as stated on the product itself. A product should have all the features that its glossy label announces and if it is not suitable for all then it should be also mentioned in the label. The use of technical terms often confuses people. The explanation should be able to reach the layman. Glamorous ads often create needs and expectations in a customer. After purchase when the described features are missing it can lead to distrust.

Every product bought should be of a satisfactory quality, which is why quality control is very important. Quality control is rarely ensured in Bangladesh starting from the kitchen market to fancy department stores. Fatima Mannan, a forty-year-old homemaker describes her story. A few days earlier she bought two pieces of coconut from the neighbourhood kitchen market. When she cracked open the shells at home she found that both the coconuts were rotten. She went back to the market as it was close to her house but the coconut seller was nowhere to be found. In this case as well Fatima as a consumer, failed to establish her right. “When I bought the two pieces they seemed fine. The seller must have switched them while I was looking for change in my purse. The world is full of dishonest people these days, you can't even trust them with a coconut”, she narrates.

“People are used to this type of unhealthy business in the kitchen market that they don't seem to care anymore. But when we go to reputed department stores we expect better” relates Naima Binte Manzur, the sister-in-law of Fatima. She narrates another story “I bought two packs of Halwa from one of Dhaka's reputed superstore hoping they would be better than from the neighbourhood sweetmeat shop but when I opened the packets the Halwa was full of fungus and had a foul scent. Negligence is such a common practice here.”

In the case of faulty goods, consumers have all the right to a full refund provided that business ethics is widely respected. However, in most cases it is difficult for the consumers in Bangladesh to prove a fault as in the first case in the CD store. If the product is a pack of Halwa, customers don't bother but if the product is expensive merchandise like a TV set then the customer will definitely want to fight the case with the store. Usually there is a guarantee card with items like TV sets. This guarantee card is given for one to three years on some specific condition fixed by the retailer or manufacturer. If the fault is discovered in the early stages it might be possible to argue the case. According to the guarantee card the store is supposed to take care of the fault or replace the goods with new ones within that given time or comply the conditions promised. But for customers here in Bangladesh trying to argue the case with the retailer can be a testing experience. There will be arguments, harassments, and of course delays. Usually a case like this takes two or three visits to resolve.

Sometimes the conditions might not correspond with the needs of the customer. In most cases customers in Bangladesh are forced to accept the terms as it is because they have no other option. Prior surveys are not usually done to know about consumer interest.

Every customer should have the right to complain about bad goods. They also have the right to be addressed in a timely manner and without harassment. Consumers must have accessible knowledge of the complaint process and steps needed to lodge a complaint. In Bangladesh, it is hardly the case. It is impossible to fight the corporate giants whether one is unhappy with anti-dandruff shampoo or a TV set.

Every customer also has the right to timely and responsive customer service. Consumers have the right to be treated with courtesy and respect. Consumers have the right to speak to a supervisor if dissatisfied with customer service. While a culture of proper customer service is growing in the country it still has a long way to go.

In Bangladesh, the issue that raises most concern is food safety. Recent media reports on the malpractice in the food sector has revealed horrifying scenario leading to massive public outcry. “After the recent drive against food adulterers I am too scared to buy anything from the store”, explains retired bank officer Khondkar Afsar who went to the New Market kitchen market to buy groceries.

“The recent reports reveal that whatever food you buy has something harmful in it. The staple food rice is mixed with urea, bottled water or cooking oil is contaminated with harmful elements, hormones are used in fruits, biscuits have toxic colouring, salt has flour in it and flour must have something in it. Now the only thing to do is grow ones own food”, says Afsar in despair.

A short trip to New Market, the most popular haunt for the middle class consumers, one comes across horrifying scenes. In one of the snack bars, a toddler is waiting for his phuchka. The seller cleans the table with a piece of dirty cloth. He uses the same cloth to dry up the plate. Without washing his hands he starts preparing phuchka for the toddler. Recent reports also revealed that the hygiene standards even in reputed restaurants are not that much different than to this phuchka stall. By not serving clean food the phuchka seller has violated consumer rights. The mother of the toddler hardly notices while she herself relishes a glass of lassi, which probably does not have much yoghurt in it but a lot of contaminated ice.

Mobile courts have found that the yoghurt or the other traditional sweets that we love so dearly are not what they seem. In a survey conducted in February 2005, DCC officials found that 100 percent of examined samples of rashogolla, kalojaam, yoghurts, and shandesh were adulterated. According to the Pure Food Ordinance 1959, at least 10 percent milk fat is mandatory in sweetmeats. But in most cases, the percentage of milk fat is not more than five percent. In most cases, sweetmeat producers or bakeries use toxic colours instead of food colours, which are carcinogens and may cause diseases like cancer and kidney damage, if regularly ingested.

In Dhaka City, famous sweetmeats are fast selling products that they claim to be from certain parts of the country famous for these items like the Porabarir Chamcham, curd from Bogra, rashogolla from Jessore, monda from Muktagachha, and roshmalai from Comilla. But actually these are produced right here in Dhaka often in the kitchen right at the back of the store.

There are more than 5,000 restaurants in Dhaka City alone, but the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) registration lists only one thousand. The quality of food at these establishments is supposed to be monitored by the sanitary inspectors of the DCC. But with only 18 inspectors for the whole city, the DCC is hardly capable of doing its job.

Recent drives by the Mobile Court has found dirty secrets in the kitchens of many restaurants. All of them were fined but only a few improved the condition to a standard level. Some of them did not even care. They continued to operate in the old fashion and were found guilty of the same offence in the second or even third raid by the Mobile Court. This only proves that the situation has reached to the lowest level and requires more than mobile courts and fines.

It requires greater awareness among consumers and a sense of responsibility among the sellers. The state mechanisms have to be efficient about punishing offenders. Before Bangladesh Pure Food (Amendment) Act, 2005 and the recent mobile court drive, the Bangladesh Food Rules 1967 and Bangladesh Pure Food Ordinance 1959, the laws addressing food were armed with weak fines that failed to intimidate the perpetrators, and thus were not enforced properly.

The National constitution makes the government responsible to ensure food safety and public health.
Section 18 (1) of the constitution, which deals with food, clearly states, “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the improvement of public health as moving its primary duties----”.

Not just in restaurants, adulteration also flourished in packed food as well because of deficiencies in government-regulated quality assurance practices. Before going to commercial production, it is mandatory that the producers secure a certificate from the Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute (BSTI), an agency that ensures the standard of products available in the market. The certificate is supposed to be renewed every year, and BSTI officials are supposed to make inquiries at the factory to test the product on a regular basis. But this rarely, if ever, happens. Instead, most of the BSTI seals featured on products are fakes, leaving the consumers in the dark about which is a quality product, and which is not. Even if there is prior testing, the shops do not store the products in hygienic conditions. Sometimes the foods become inedible after being exposed to unhealthy elements during transportation.

Lack of proper storage systems seriously affects medicine. Every medicine requires a specific temperature and environment. Some of the lifesaving injections widely used in the country must be stored in the freezer. Exposed to light or heat, often the medicines become unusable even if it is before expiry date. Very few drugstores in the country have a proper storage system. Without knowing these essential facts people buy medicine hoping to be cured from their ailments.

Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute (BSTI) is weighed down with a numerous problems. It is not well equipped with modern facilities for testing products and commodities. A recent Daily Star report shows that there are only 13 BSTI field officers for the whole country, five in Dhaka division, for checking seals and conducting mobile courts. Human resources, technologies and policies of BSTI did not change since 1956. There are hardly any training facilities for the employees. Moreover, the general consumers often question the efficiency and integrity of the officials of BSTI.

Lack of awareness of what constitutes consumer rights is the most important factor that allows unscrupulous manufacturers and retailers to sell poor quality goods. Adulteration, cheating in weighing and measures, hoarding and artificial price-hike, all these matters are everyday elements for the people in Bangladesh. Violation of consumer rights and lack of business ethics has become such a common practice that even people with education are failing to protect their rights.

When asked the young man at the CD store whether he was aware of the terminology Consumer Rights, the customer who was a student of Dhaka Collage answered in an irritated voice “What rights? There is no such thing existing in Bangladesh.”

Fatima believes that “a little honesty is all we need”, Khondkar Afsar on the other hand thinks, “There should be strong laws to protect the rights and punish the criminals”

In 1995, the government drafted the Consumer Rights Protection Law, which calls for special tribunals to try the offenders. Various civic organisations, including CAB, have been pushing for years for passage of the law, hoping it will give more teeth to the prosecution of crimes and ensure regular monitoring.

But its passage has dragged on for more than a decade. In January 2005, the law was finally passed in a cabinet meeting, but again it was delayed, and now remains shelved in the law ministry.

In the absence of appropriate and adequate protective laws, standards and effective implementation of existing laws, consumers in our country are helplessly being cheated and exploited by some dishonest businessman and vested interest groups. Lack of political will, coupled with crippling manpower shortages in inspection agencies have made it impossible to protect the interest of the consumer. This means as consumers we will continue to buy things on the basis of trust in the products and the salesperson who sell them. But whether the individuals on the supply side of the equation are worthy of such good faith is an entirely different question.

By Shahnaz Parveen
Model: Asif Khan
Photo: Munem Wasif

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