Asserting our consumer rights

By:  –  October 25, 2016, 12:13 AM

from Philippine Daily Inquirer

Forty-five years ago, the last week of October was declared Consumer Protection Week, as a period for planning and enforcement of government action toward controlling fraudulent trade practices and unreasonable price increases. It has since been expanded to cover the whole month of October as Consumer Welfare Month, and the focus broadened to include consumer education and awareness as well.

Consumer protection is a constitutional mandate. Article XVI, Section 9 declares: “The State shall protect consumers from trade malpractices and from substandard or hazardous products.” It was in this light that the Consumer Act of the Philippines (Republic Act. No. 7394) was passed in 1992.

Consumers have eight basic rights under the law, namely, the rights to: (1) basic needs, (2) safety, (3) information, (4) choice, (5) representation, (6) redress, (7) consumer education, and (8) healthy environment. From these have stemmed other laws and orders, such as the Toy and Game Safety Labeling Act, Cheaper Medicines Act, Air Passenger Bill of Rights, Anti-Lemon Law and Pre-need Code. While ample policies appear to be in place to ensure our welfare as consumers, most of us feel that we remain at the mercy of producers, service providers and sellers.

There are many reasons why consumers get poor treatment. Laws are often not faithfully enforced. All too often, consumers simply don’t bother to assert their rights enough. The story of a young couple who bought a home in Cavite from a real estate developer is illustrative. Their new house had defects, including ones that would compromise their safety, so they refused to accept the house outright.

They conducted several inspections, each time incurring costs for travel and effort, until the defects were fixed to their satisfaction. Even as friends recommended contractors to fix the house’s defects, they were adamant that the developer should handle the problems. It would have been less costly to them, and they could have moved in much sooner had they chosen to have the problems fixed themselves; but they stood their ground as a matter of principle.

Often, the most practical course of action would be to just let things pass, especially as offending companies often put up stiff resistance. The above case is relatively mild compared to well-known consumer vs. company stories. The Pepsi 349 scandal in 1992, wherein thousands of consumers, who—feeling duped over the soft drink company’s bungled promotional campaign—pursued legal action, obtained a Supreme Court decision only in 2006. The aggrieved in the pre-need industry meltdown at the turn of the century are finally being compensated only now, at far below the amounts they lost.

But there are also positive cases in recent history, though not as well-known as the storied battles described above. The case filed by the Department of Trade and Industry that led to the eventual closure of Aowa Electronic Philippines for misleading customers was a win for consumers. The consumer act prevailed when the DTI ordered the replacement of or the refund for the defective Audi of one Ricardo Nolasco last year.

The DTI also goes to great lengths to educate consumers and protect them from hazardous products, and confiscates potentially dangerous items like substandard Christmas lights.

Like most laws, the consumer act and related laws aimed at consumer protection are inutile unless consumers invoke them. While the DTI has filed some cases on its own, the authorities generally cannot do their job unless consumers file a complaint and provide the facts of their case. I myself have spent countless hours over the years writing letters of complaint to companies that I had received unfair treatment from, and had obtained due action from them.

Too many of us accept that if we get duped, it’s our fault. We consumers have to stand up for our rights. With every right comes responsibility, and here, it is as simple as knowing and asserting those rights, individually and collectively. Unless we do so, we will continue being abused again and again, in pursuit of profits that come out of our very own pockets.