A new law introducing measures for radical changes to the way goods and services are sold and bought is set to be passed in parliament with the support of the opposition.
Piloted by Minister of Tourism Industry and Commerce, Manniram Prashad, the Consumers Affairs Bill puts into the hands of shoppers a wide array of rights over the conditions under which the goods are bought and a number of obligations and responsibilities to the seller regardless of the size of the merchandise purchase.
The Bill is described as, “An Act to promote and protect consumer interests in relation to the supply of goods and services and for related purposes”.
“There is no legislative framework to protect consumers,” said Minister Prashad as he described the current situation in Guyana while introducing the Bill in the National Assembly Thursday night.
“If a consumer buys a faulty good or product (the consumer) does not have any recourse.”
He spoke of his Ministry receiving numerous complaints of unfair business dealings in transactions between the consumer and merchant and said that in the absence of a law specifically governing such commerce, the only way these disputes are settled is by moral suasion. “This is how we operate now.”
He added that this proposed legislation should not meet any controversy in parliament because almost everyone in Guyana has at sometime been affected by unfair business practices.
Following a favourable reception from the Opposition parties, Speaker of the National Assembly, Ralph Ramkarran, had proceeded to give the Bill its Third Reading and passage in the House when Minister Prashad moved a motion for the Bill to be referred to a special committee.
He explained that the proposed legislation is so important and despite the camaraderie shown as the Bill was introduced, Members of Parliament may find concerns after closer examination.
This Bill has 14 parts with a total 115 clauses, and in his presentation the Minister highlighted some areas as examples of the sweeping changes that will be introduced to commerce in Guyana.
Explaining the immediacy of enforcement of this legislation when it becomes law the minister gave an example of goods offered for sale carrying labels in a foreign language, “Those found on shelves with no English will be deemed illegal”.
Suppliers of goods sold by weight or volume will be obligated to provide for the consumer facilities to confirm that measurement.
The Bill forbids merchants from displaying the price of goods claiming the cost to be VAT inclusive. It states that the prices and fees must be current and all related taxes shall be shown separately from the cost of the goods or services.
Similarly, the receipt for goods or services must show separately the price of goods and services and applicable taxes. Additionally the date of purchase must be displayed.
Mr Prashad noted that a practice by some merchants of placing all goods on one receipt and applying taxes to the total cost though some items on the list may be zero rated.
According to the Bill, suppliers of goods and services must assume the warranty placed by the manufacturer, and in the absence of that provision the item sold will automatically have a six-month warranty.
Consumers will not have to pay for goods or services supplied that are more than they had requested. As an example the Minister referred to instances where a car owner might request a mechanic to repair or fix one item on the vehicle, but the tradesman chooses to repair or replace other parts that are deemed faulty without the owner’s permission.
The mechanic then charges the customer for the additional service, but under this new Bill there is no obligation to pay for the extra cost that was not requested.
“A person who commits an offence under this Act is liable on summary conviction to a fine of not less than $20,000 nor more than $1 million and to imprisonment for one year,” the Bill reads in part.
The Competition Commission established under the Competition and Fair Trading Act will be renamed the Competition and Consumer Affairs Commission, and will administer the new legislation and enforce its provisions.
Merchants and other suppliers of goods and services who are dissatisfied by a decision of the Commission can appeal within 15 days to a judge in court who may confirm, modify, or reverse the decision. Additionally the Commission can be directed to reconsider its findings.
Minister Prashad said that this coming legislation will be preceded by a massive awareness campaign, and certain known offenders will be personally contacted. “We know most of them and we are calling them in with passage of the bill.”
The Bill does not cover hire purchase transactions. The Minister said that such legislation will be brought to the House separately. “Because it is so important we think it needs a separate bill,” he said in response to a query by Member of Parliament Clarisa Riehl.
“The intention of this legislation is fundamentally good. We will support this legislation,” said Ms Riehl.
She however questioned the practicality of enforcing the law. “How realistic are some of these provisions when we have so many tiers of business?” she asked. She also expressed a concern that larger businesses are more equipped to carry out provisions of the coming Act but small enterprises are challenged.
She preferred a tribunal be set up to deal with appeals by suppliers against the Commission instead of the law courts which are already short staffed.
The AFC’s Sheila Holder said her party supports the Bill, and sought to address a concern of the practicality of the law expressed by MP Riehl. MP Holder said that similar laws exist in various countries with similar trade tiers and are being competently enforced.
Ms Holder wanted to know whether enactment of the proposed law would protect Guyanese from fly-by-night swindlers such as fraudulent real estate developers.
She asked why a previous consumer protection bill passed in 2006 was never enacted. To this query Minister Prashad said he did not have an answer.
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