Wider Role of Watchdog

February 25, 2016

We refer to Selwa Nandan’s write up titled “Wider Role of Watchdog” in your Business News column, dated 19 February 2016.

The Council appreciates Mr. Nandan’s interest in consumerism and for commending the Council for the ongoing job of holding the unethical traders and service providers in the private sector accountable.  

We also note his view that the thrust of CCOF’s focus is more on policing the activities of the business sector but failing to respond to public complaints pertaining to goods and services delivered by the public sector.

The Council’s first priority is to attend to consumers who lodge formal complaints with the Council which can be against the public or private sector. In order to investigate the complaints, we need specific information and evidences. In the event the information is not furnished to us, it makes it difficult to deal with the complaints appropriately. The decision to investigate the matters is based on our limited resources. This is also centered around the fact that consumer grievances covers a very wide range of issues, such as dental/medical negligence cases, utility bills, misleading advertisements, expiry goods, hair and beauty industry, counterfeit electronic goods and mobile phones, landlord tenancy issues, and second hand motor dealers. The list is never ending.

The consumer watchdog has been prudently investigating and mediating consumer disputes against state services. For instance, since 2011, the Council has handled 381 complaints related to Water Authority of Fiji, 342 complaints against Fiji Electricity Authority, 23 complaints against LTA and 19 complaints against public hospitals.

Similarly, we have handled complaints against FNPF, FRCA, Fiji Roads Authority, I-TLTB, Public Rental Board and Lands Department. These are just handful of complaints (against public sector bodies) when compared with the thousands of complaints we receive against businesses.  From 2011 to Feb 2016, the Council received a total of 802 complaints against public service providers as compared to 9589 complaints against the private sector. These are just handful of complaints (against public sector bodies) when compared with the thousands of complaints we receive against the privately-owned businesses. This is a dilemma for us as well that many consumers choose not to bring to light complaints against the public sector.

Unfortunately, some of the issues raised by Mr. Nandan in his article were not formally lodged by consumers at the Council. From his article, it seems that Mr. Nandan expects the Council to act on issues raised by readers through “letters to editor” that are general comments but not specifically addressed to the Council. Nevertheless, he seems to be unaware that the Council does act promptly if consumers raise significant issues precisely to the organization through “letters to editor” column. Mr. Nandan has been selective in raising issues where he felt that the Council did not do enough to address the issues. We wish to remind Mr. Nandan that the Council uses many strategies to deal with issues.

The Council has acted on issues based on the complaints received from aggrieved consumers against the public sector. For example, the Council’s advocacy and lobbying resulted in a reduction of stamp duty for residential tenancy from $500 to $10.

Mr Nandan raised the issue of delay in supply of textbooks, shortage of medicines and insufficient stocks of passport books- in all three cases, government provided timely explanation for the problems and they kept the public informed.

Regarding shortage of medicine, the Council has raised this issues directly with Health Officials at a meeting where Minister of Health was present. The Council has been highlighting medical negligence cases and poor health services offered by the public hospitals at Health Policy Technical Support Group (HPTSG) meetings.

There are situations where the Council has acted on certain issues against both private and public sectors by issuing press statements, which the media organizations fail to publish. This is primarily due to the fact that comments are not provided by the relevant parties to the media organizations in a timely manner. We are also involved in doing paid advertisements or public notices with the aim to alert consumers on peculiar issues that may be affecting them. It is unfortunate that media opts not to publish the names of organizations targeted in these consumer alerts or notices. This is despite having evidences against them.

Previously, the issue has also been raised on why Council did nothing about the awarding of exclusive government advertisement contract to one media organization. In this matter raised earlier, it is important to consider that consumers are not deprived of having access to public information, which is still available in the marketplace. Consumers have the power in their own hands to make a choice as to where they want to spend their money based on their preference.

We are indeed aware of human nature where if an organization is doing its share of work, the expectation of the society increases gradually. The public is quite fond of criticizing those organizations, which are working towards its mandate. Those organizations which shirk away from its responsibility are the ones that are now so used to staying in their comfort zones. It is evident that questions about their deficiencies are not posed to them in the first place.

CCOF anticipates aggrieved consumers to raise issues against public and private sectors. What we lack in our community is consumer solidarity and responsibility. Consumers have the responsibility to be assertive, vigilant and deal with dissatisfaction/unfair treatment given to them by any trader/service provider, be it from privately owned business or a Government service provider. Number of complaints matters if consumers want change in policies or practices. At the end of the day, the burden lies heavily on the consumers to lodge complaints. And, we have many such overwhelming consumers who have come forward in the past and they continue to do so to bring such injustices and breaches in consumer protection laws to our attention.

One of the other functions that the Council has is to advise and make recommendations to the Minister responsible for consumer affairs in Fiji or any other Minister on issues affecting the interests of consumers. This work extends to providing advice and making submissions to regulatory agencies, policymaking bodies, private sector or industry groups and international agencies. As such, we make both oral and written submissions to the government of the day where the consumers’ rights and interests are adversely affected. We also represent consumers in stakeholder forums, boards and committees whereby necessary interventions are made to ensure consumers interests are adequately protected and promoted. As far as submissions are concerned, we had written to the Minister of Finance on VAT issues prior to the budget announcement last year.

We have no qualms with Mr. Nandan in holding us responsible for not acting on complaints he has highlighted in his column. We are not an enforcement body but simply have an advocacy role.