On January 2, 2001, the Fair Trading Commission (FTC) came into being. Its mission, proudly stated, was to be transparent and accountable, and to provide professional services to its constituents. The FTC proclaimed it would safeguard the interest of consumers, promote and encourage fair competition, and ensure efficiently regulated utility services.
Over the years, the FTC has attracted high-quality staff and has done a commendable job in many respects.
But within recent times, there has been a noticeable “dropping of the ball” at the commission. We will not be so unkind as to join those who have now designated the FTC as really the acronym for a “Failure To Consumers”, but we will suggest, with respect to its policing of matters related to utilities, that the FTC has drifted into self-induced slumber at the wheel.
Notwithstanding that it now appears easier to locate gold in El Dorado, than to get comment or explanation out of those responsible for oversight of utilities at the FTC, the outgoing head of the organization has become immersed in “Freundelian” silence on matters related to the LIME/Flow merger and the myriad complaints of consumers.
Section 3, Subsection (1), Clauses (d), (e) and (f) of the Utilities Regulation Act, Chapter 282, states, among the functions of the FTC as it relates to service providers, that the commission must “determine the standards of service applicable”, “monitor the standards of service supplied to ensure compliance” and “carry out periodic reviews of the rates and principles for setting rates and standards of service”.
Subsection (3), Clause (a) of the same section of the act stipulates that the FTC shall “protect the interests of consumers by ensuring that service providers supply to the public, service that is safe, adequate, efficient and reasonable”.
What should be of significant importance to consumers is Section 21 of the act which states: “Where a service provider fails to meet prescribed standards of service, the service provider shall make to any person who is affected by the failure such compensation as may be determined by the commission.”
And here is where many argue that the FTC has become a failure to consumers.
Consumers have been saddled with situations where their telephones –– both landline and cellular –– work efficiently only spasmodically. In some cases, since the introduction of fibre optics, many have claimed that their Internet service has “improved worse”. They complain that there is no one consistently available to answer queries within the utilities division at the FTC. Then, those who do answer queries at the service provider’s outsourced locations present little or no remedy.
And yet, service bills do not reflect such inefficiencies. Consumers pay the same price for poor service and the FTC remains mum on compensation for consumers, and has thus far seemingly failed to give directives to service providers as to such compensation and its quantum.
Under the Utilities Regulation Act, the law is clear on what penalties can be ascribed to service providers for any breach of its duties to consumers or failure to comply with the stipulations of the FTC. But one wonders what is the liability of the FTC itself to consumers if that office fails to carry out its mandate fully as enshrined in the laws of the land? That is a question around which the FTC’s lawyers can tiptoe.
And there is more on which the FTC may enlighten its public, especially those who gladly left the bed of LIME to bunk with Flow, only to be returned to a ménage à trois not of their choosing.
Consumers have found themselves part of a merger in which they had no say. Many were not told officially, beforehand, the terms and conditions of the agreement to which they have now been condemned.
Has the FTC educated the Barbadian public on the pros and cons of the merger, and their rights within the new arrangement? Has the director of utilities at the FTC conducted or ordered any checks on standards to ensure that those who have been brought kicking and screaming back into LIME’s embrace are privy to the same, better or even worse conditions as those enjoyed or endured by the original Flow faithful?
The schedule of the Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 326D, as it relates to contract terms which are unfair if not individually negotiated, makes for interesting reading.
Among those terms deemed unfair –– and there are 17 –– are two that should pique the interest of consumers. The law deems as unfair a contract that is “irrevocably binding the consumer to terms with which he had no real opportunity of becoming acquainted before the conclusion of the contract”; and “giving the supplier the possibility of transferring his rights and obligations under the contract, where this may serve to reduce the guarantees for the consumer, without the latter’s agreement”.
Can the chief executive officer of the FTC –– with a straight face –– tell a Barbadian public, with an alleged nigh 100 per cent literacy rate, that the commission has properly done its job in its handling of the LIME/Flow merger and its responsibilities to a perhaps overly trusting public?
Consumers can find the answer by joining the dots from their original contractual arrangements, the service they receive, their utility bills, to the Laws Of Barbados.