February 23, 2015
"When you focus on the consumer, the consumer responds." - Alexander Wang
Last week, we noted that many modern societies have established laws and organizations that are designed to protect the rights of consumers, to ensure fair trade and competition in an orderly economic environment and to provide for the dissemination of accurate consumer information in the marketplace. Therefore this week, in the conclusion of this series, we again invite you to Consider This... in The Bahamas, who is protecting the consumer?
In the first installment of this series, we noted that Bahamian consumers need to be better protected from questionable commercial banking practices, and from certain deficient services that are provided by BTC, BEC, and Cable Bahamas. This week, we will review consumer protection that is afforded in connection with food preparation, fuel providers, roadside automobile peddlers and airline hackers.
We live in an environment where some products, such as food and fuel, are regulated. There are certain foods that are price-controlled at our food stores. The real question that an educated consumer should ask is whether the Price Control Commission methodically monitors foods that are subjected to price control. Although it is not unusual for consumers to observe vastly different prices for the same food items, it is extremely rare that we hear of food stores being sanctioned for pricing breaches by the Price Control Commission. Is this because the food stores are virtually compliant or have they been able to circumvent the price control regime?
The price of fuel is also regulated and importers and end-service providers are allowed to earn pre-determined margins. But who monitors the pricing behavior of service providers to ensure that the consumer is not being gouged at the fuel pump? We do not frequently, if ever, hear of any violations of the established margins by fuel merchants or of any penalties imposed for attendant breaches.
Finally, the Bahamian consumer needs protection relative to local food production and distribution. In the absence of sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards regarding the production of food, plants and vegetables, the all-important question of food safety will remain elusive at best and questionable at worst. One of the benefits of the country's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) is that such standards must be established. However, until standards relative to food, plant and vegetable production, harvesting and distribution are implemented and enforced, consumers will never really know just how safe the food is that they are consuming.
There are many roadside vendors who operate in broad daylight without any protection for the consumer. For example, consider the roadside food vendors who serve the public from the trunks of their cars on a daily basis. Their food preparation is not regulated or inspected by anyone; therefore, consumers have no recourse if their hair falls out or they develop food poisoning as a result of unhygienic food preparation procedures.
Flight safety standards and hackers
Many people are aware of, but often turn a blind eye to airline "hackers"; that is, private pilots who operate their aircraft from airports in The Bahamas without an Air Operator's Certificate, and frequently in uninsured aircraft. This represents a clear and present danger and a serious potential risk to the flying public who are unaware that they are placing themselves, their family and friends at risk in several ways.
First, because such "hackers" operate without an Air Operator's Certificate, persons who charter such flights should be aware that even if they have life insurance, their insurance company will probably not pay the benefits that are due them if they lose their lives in an aircraft that is operated by a hacker. In addition, the flying public who utilize the services of hackers have no way of knowing whether the pilots who operate their aircraft are properly trained, or whether they properly maintain their aircraft and regularly update their own flying skills.
Finally, there is the risk of loss to persons or companies whose property might be damaged by such aircraft if the hackers are uninsured. It is therefore incumbent on the Flight Standards Inspectorate of the Department of Civil Aviation to protect consumers from hackers.
Unscrupulous automobile peddlers
Who protects the consumer from those individuals who go to Florida to purchase wrecked vehicles, import them into The Bahamas, rebuild them, many times with parts from stolen vehicles, and advertise them on the side of the road or via print or social media? These vehicles are potentially dangerous to the consumer and often false information is provided about the background of such vehicles. The suppliers of these vehicles prey on consumers who do not know better or "thrifty" consumers who feel that legitimate automobile dealers are ripping them off, therefore they purchase automobiles from roadside vendors, believing that this is a better option.
When consumers buy these roadside vehicles and finally realize what they have purchased, they often experience buyer's remorse, and run to legitimate dealers to try to trade in their vehicle for an untainted one. When Bahamian dealers refuse to trade them in because of the car's history, legitimate dealers are viewed with suspicion. In some cases, consumers destroy their vehicle to collect the insurance proceeds in order to get out of the deal.
The bottom line is that consumers need protection not only from big business but also from greedy, fly-by-night operators who contribute nothing to the Public Treasury by paying no business license fees, no National Insurance and now no VAT payments. These unscrupulous automobile peddlers do not employ anyone and do not pay property taxes, as they operate from the roadsides, at roundabouts, at RM Bailey Park or on social media.
Then there are those peddlers who purport to bring in good, undamaged cars from auctions. The consumer can easily go on CarFax.com with the VIN number to determine the car's history. A simple search of the website will provide a full report on the car's history. Sometimes, unethical automobile peddlers change or remove the VIN number located on the door frame but the VIN number can also be located on the engine and other places where it is more difficult to find and erase.
Politicians cannot have it both ways by claiming that they are empowering and protecting the small businessman by turning a blind eye to such unscrupulous business practices or that legitimate automobile dealers are ripping off the consumer. When consumers have a problem with a big business, they can access the courts to have their complaints heard.
At least consumers know where the legitimate car dealers are located if they want to serve a summons as compared to fly by night operators who are invisible and cannot be found. Real consumer protection should apply to all business persons who sell goods and services to the public - equally to the side of the road car vendors on RM Bailey Park as well as legitimate car dealers. There are many other examples where consumers need to be protected, but neither time nor space enable us to cover them all.
As we observed in part 1 of this series, until we become educated consumers, we will not be good customers. Instead, we will indeterminately wander and wallow in the quagmire of ignorance and abuse. We should no longer tolerate consumer abuses or neglect. Ultimately, we must become empowered, not only to stop those abuses for ourselves, but to end them for each and every Bahamian consumer.
o Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in parliament. Please send your comments to email@example.com.
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