Protecting consumer rights
How helpful will be the enactment of a new law?
Consumer is a person who is not directly involved in a trade, but receives goods and services from a person who is occupied in the business. To keep the business profitable and legal, some policies have been established by the government to create a balance between profit and quality. Such policies are largely about goods and services, supplied to the consumers or customers, who wish to purchase or hire goods and/or services from the sellers or manufacturers.
There are three pillars of consumer policy:
1. Consumer legislation and regulation;
2. Consumer representation;
3. Empowerment of individual consumer
India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Nepal have extensive consumer protection legislation that is successfully executed and ensures the access to justice. They have established a separate court for consumers so that if there is any violation of consumer protection law then the consumers can directly bring action through that court.
Now being a neighbouring country where does Bangladesh stand? Do we have similar extensive consumer protection law, which would ensure justice to the poor consumer of our country?
After a prolonged advocacy and lobbying by the CAB (Consumer Association of Bangladesh) with the government and the policy makers a draft Consumer Protection Law was formulated long time back. This draft act is still lying with the Ministry of Commerce to be processed for enactment by the Parliament. However we do have some existing laws on consumer protection but that are very controversial and conventional.
Consumer protection in Bangladesh is referred in Articles 15 and 18 of the Constitution. Article 15 deals with the provision of basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, right to work, right to work at reasonable wages, quantity and quality of work, social security etc. Article 18 deals with public health and morality, like preventing the consumption of alcoholic and other intoxicating drinks and of drugs, which are injurious to health.
In addition there are other numerous provisions of consumer law, which have been enacted from time to time. For example, the Control of Essential Commodity Act, 1956 has given power to the government to control the production, distribution, preservation, use, and business etc. of certain essential commodities for which a license/ permit is a must.
With regard to maintaining the quality of food such as flour, oil, ghee, etc. the Department of Public Health has been entrusted with the duty of inspection and examination of the quality of foodstuff under the Pure Food Ordinance 1959. This Ordinance also prohibits persons with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, from involvement in manufacturing/preparation of such food items.
The Price and Distribution of Essential Commodity Ordinance, 1970 was enacted to ensure the right price so that the importers, producers and the businessmen may not be able to earn unjust profits.
The Drug Control Ordinance 1982 empowered Government to establish control over manufacture, import, distribution and sale of drugs. This enactment makes provisions for constituting a Drugs Control Committee, which is known as Drug Administration. Without its permission no drug can be manufactured for sale or be imported or distributed. In case of manufacturing of drugs, the firms are advised to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organisation.
The Breast Milk Substitute (Regulation of Marketing) Ordinance 1984 states that nobody is allowed to promote the use of any breast milk substitute or give any impression that breast milk substitute is better than breast-feeding. That will amount to an offence. The Ordinance has also made it mandatory to inscribe that “there is no substitute to breast-feeding” on the package of the substitute.
Further on October 27, 1988 Bangladesh has joined anti-smoking campaign. The aim of such campaign is to reduce the use of tobacco. Sellers and manufacturers are instructed to give warning on the tobacco packet as “smoking is injurious to health”. Without this caution they are not allowed to display or advertise any tobacco product.
Apart from these Ordinances there are some additional legislative provisions giving protection to consumer interests. For example: Section 272 of the Penal Code, 1860 prohibits any food or drink to be adulterated. Section 274 also imposes restriction on adulteration of any drug or medical preparation. Section 482 provides restrictions on any false trademark or any false property trademark. Section 267 provides restrictions on false statement to sell or disposes any instrument for weighting.
The Special Power Act 1974 provides for more severe penalties for advertisement, black-marketing, smuggling, adulteration of or sale of adulterated foods, drinks, drugs or cosmetics.
The Dangerous Drugs Act 1930 empowered government to put restrictions on cultivation of cocoa-plant, manufacture and possession of opium, cultivation of poppy etc.
The Trade Mark Act 1940 provides that all manufactured commodity should have a trademark, which will distinguish it from other commodity of the same nature and the consumers will get the liberty to choose their own brand. The object of this act is to give protection to the original trademark against unauthorised use of his Trade Mark by his competitor(s).
The Standards of Weights and Measures Ordinance 1982 provides that the establishment of standards of weights and measures shall be based on metric system and units of measurement and would be know in the country as System International (SI) units.
All these Ordinances and Acts have been enacted with good intention to protect the 'helpless' consumers of Bangladesh. Similarly the CAB (Consumer Association of Bangladesh) was established to protect the rights of those consumers. Nevertheless, the Bangladeshi consumers are still beset with various problems. These problems include:
Lack of awareness: Mass people of Bangladesh are unaware of their rights as a consumer. They do not know if the sellers cheat them, what they should do or where they should go. The reason behind is that consumers right is still a comparatively new concept to the people of Bangladesh.
Illiteracy: Most of the people in Bangladesh do not know about the existence of their rights as consumer. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of basic education. They cannot think up to the level that they can have such rights which would give them protection against adulteration of food, medicine etc. and the right to get proper service for which they are paying.
Economic condition: We cannot avoid thinking of the economic condition which does not provide the atmosphere fit for consumers who are careful and demand quality.
Compromising attitude: Sometimes we do compromise with the quality of goods bought because of our financial limitation. If we are incapable of paying the accurate price for the goods we buy, we cannot expect a high standard of quality for the same.
These are the small fractions of problem related to the consumers. However, there are other problems too. For example, in Bangladesh there is no separate court for consumers' rights. Also the consumers lack proper authority to go to the court to bring action against those who violate the consumers' rights. Therefore, the consumers need to rely upon the government officials concerned to bring any effective action against the alleged parties. Those alleged parties are also taking advantage of this vague situation. The corrupt businessmen tend to establish a good relationship with corrupt government officials who might help them to cheat and exploit the innocent consumers. Moreover, the BSTI (Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute) is beset with lots of problems, like it does not have modern equipment and facilities for testing of many products. Also, the general consumers very often question the efficiency and integrity of the officials in the BSTI.
Many claim that, our present law is outdated, unable to protect the consumers, faulty and does not meet the present requirements. Hence, enactment of new law is a must. However, one may question, how far the enactment of new law will in any real sense solve the current consumer problem? If the already existing law is not fully enforced then how come we can expect that the new law will protect our consumers and their rights properly better than today?
The author is a Senior Research Fellow of the LawDev (Bangladesh).