Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Consumer Protection Law is on the table

(First appeared in New Era 18 March 2015)

Two weeks ago I was contacted by a consumer complaining about a freezer that they purchased a freezer and it is already broken after a few weeks. The customer was very upset as the store wished to come and fix the broken freezer and not replace it. Unfortunately for the client there is no consumer act in place and the store has the right to fix the freezer rather than replace it. The problem for this consumers was the misunderstanding between the term “warranty” and “guarantee”.  Most of us would expect that when we purchase a product, the warranty – or the written guarantee - issued by the manufacturer of a product will include a provision to replace the product within a specified period of time. The problem comes when we do not read the fine print when doing the purchase. In this consumers case the warranty issued by the manufacturer promised to repair or replace it if necessary within a specified period of time. The store was thus correct in first offering to have the freezer repaired and only if that did not fix the problem, will they replace the freezer. Unfortunately the Consumer Court cannot do anything to assist the consumer and she will have to accept that the “new freezer” is now a “fixed freezer”.

The good news is that consumers in Namibia will soon have recourse through a Consumer Protection Bureau that will be established under the Ministry of Trade and Industry. In addition, a Consumer Advisory Board will be established with “at least half of the members to be individuals with recognised experience or expertise in advocating for consumers, studying issues related to consumer protection, or with demonstrated commitment to regulation of marketplace activity in the interests of consumers”. The draft law has been shared with consumer advocates, business associations and other regulatory organisations for their inputs at a two day workshop.

The law also goes hand in hand with a National Consumer Policy which has six objectives, namely 1) to create market transactions that strive to obtain a fair balance of power between sellers and consumers; 2) protect vulnerable consumers from marketplace conduct that takes advantage of unsophisticated, less educated or infirm consumers; 3) provide an incentive for honesty and fair dealing by all sellers; 4) promote efficiency and transparency in the Namibian economy and marketplace, thus increasing economic development; 5) ensure accessible, transparent and efficient redress for consumers; and 6) promote consumer participation in decision-making processes concerning the regulation of the marketplace in the interests of consumers. The law is based on “UDAAP”, meaning prohibition against unfair, deceptive and abusive acts and practices.

By “unfairness”, it refers to when an unfair balance occurs between the rights of the consumer and the rights of the seller. It also will allow for more control of the transaction by the consumer. The “deceptive” refers to sellers who are misleading consumers about the actual price of goods or the actual discount amount, advertising products not intending to be sold as advertised, representing that goods are of a certain origin or brand when they are not, and similar conduct are all considered deceptive sales practices. “Abusive acts or practices” are based on the seller taking unreasonable advantage of a consumers’ ignorance, vulnerability or dependence on the seller.

All these ideas laid out in the policy and draft law are to be welcomed in assisting Namibian consumers to be protected in the marketplace. I just hope that the Ministry and then the Parliament will act in good speed in getting the law into practice.

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