Several local businesses have been found to be operating in breach of the Consumer Protection Act.
What’s more, many have been engaging in unfair trading practices, according to the Fair Trading Commission (FTC), which has recorded mixed success in getting local companies to fall in line and to respect the provisions of the Act.
Meanwhile, the head of the consumer body has expressed disappointment over the number of complaints yet to be resolved and contract terms that were yet to be amended or deleted.
In its just released annual report covering the period April 2014 to March 2015, the FTC said it had identified a total of 71 terms in 82 standard form contracts that were deemed to be in breach of the island’s consumer laws.
The contracts were drawn from several industries, including construction, banking and telecommunications and the companies for which the breaches were found were asked to amend or delete the terms.
However, the FTC said only 11 terms were amended, adding that it was currently in dialogue with the remaining businesses to have the offending terms either deleted or brought into compliance with the Act.
The commission also reported that of the 176 stores visited during the review period, ten were found guilty of unfair trading practices that both mislead and deceive consumers by displaying “prohibited signs”.
The FTC said those companies were required to remove the signs, adding that it discussed the relevant provisions of the CPA with all businesses.
In addition, 34 companies were found to be in contravention of the CPA in their advertising both in print and electronic media. Those businesses, the FTC said, were required to either amend or delete the advertisements.
“Over the past year the commission maintained a vigorous consumer protection programme which involved researching topical issues relevant to consumer welfare, conducting educational and outreach initiatives for consumers, businesses and other organizations, and investigating complaints from consumers which alleged contravention of their rights under the Act,” the latest report said.
However, the construction industry remains an area of concern, given complaints of overcharging, poor quality of service, defaulting on times for completion of work, accepting monies and not completing work and refusing to deal effectively with complaints.
“The study confirmed that consumers are experiencing several problems, including high costs and delays,” the FTC said.
“The commission convened a workshop with construction industry personnel to discuss the findings of the study and to receive feed back. Generally, it was agreed that an association of contractors/builders should be established; contractors/builders should be licensed; a list of certified contractors should be compiled for use by consumers; and sanctions should be applicable where contractors and tradesmen fall below required standards,” it added.
Another area highlighted by the FTC was “Negative Option” marketing, which it said involved sending “unsolicited goods/services” to consumers for which they are then charged if they do not reject or cancel the offer.
“The action results in a significant imbalance in the rights of consumers and is contrary to the principle of Offer and Acceptance in Contract Law,” said the FTC, while pointing out that such marketing was present in Barbados in some telecommunications and cable television industry agreements.
And without naming any company, the consumer protection, fair competition and utility regulatory body said it informed the three businesses identified to be using this marketing tactic that it was prohibited under the Act and that they were required to make the relevant amendments to their agreements.
“To date, two of the businesses have complied. The commission continues to address this issue with the third business,” the report said.
For the period under review, there were 85 consumer complaints against the utility companies – 58 against Cable & Wireless (C&W), 15 against Barbados Light & Power (BL&P) and 12 against the Barbados Water Authority (BWA). This compared to 61 for C&W and 18 for BL&P the previous year. Seventy-two per cent of those complaints were resolved, the FTC said.
It also reported that a total of 2,578 consumers contacted it for advice on matters relating to the Consumer Protection Act during the review period. Of that number, 2,254 were telephone queries and 324 were from consumers visiting the commission.
The FTC said 751 consumers were directed to the Office of Public Counsel “and the commission itself forwarded relevant complaints, since the facts of the cases indicated that they fell under the purview of the Consumer Guarantee Act, which is administered by the Office of Public Counsel”. Sixty-five written complaints were also lodged with the FTC.
“Seventeen new complaints were recorded by the commission during the year and three complaints that were not concluded in the 2013/2014 period were brought forward and resolved. Three new complaints remain outstanding and are being investigated,” the FTC report added.
Director General of the Barbados Consumer Research Association (BARCRA) Malcolm Gibbs-Taitt told Barbados TODAY he was not surprised that the FTC continued to get a number of complaints from consumers.
However, Gibbs-Taitt said, “why so many of them are not corrected is a little worrying”.
In fact, the consumer rights advocate said with the FTC having the “the force of law behind them” he expected that complaints would be settled quicker.
In addition he said while it was “good” that the FTC examined a number of contract forms, “the mere fact that they have some [amendments] outstanding is also worrying.
“I would like to know where these [terms to be amended] are from, whether they are from the construction, banking or telecommunication sector because they didn’t say,” he said.
In relation to the advertisement breaches, Gibbs-Taitt singled out some radio ads, saying “the FTC has for too long ignored this constant breach”.
And while not naming any agency, Gibbs-Taitt also complained that some Government agencies tended not to include a third party in solving some issues.
“Here in Barbados we have a serious problem where the Government agencies almost without exception, tend not to want to get too involved with the private or non-government entities. They tend to think that they are a law unto themselves and they don’t want to share information they don’t really want to meet with people from the NGO sector. In other words it become a ‘them and us’ situation,” said Gibbs-Taitt.