Unhappy with the quality of service they have been getting, Barbadian consumers turned to the Fair Trading Commission (FTC) in droves last year to formally register their dissatisfaction.
However, of the total number of 776 complaints lodged under the Consumer Guarantees Act and forwarded to the Office of Public Counsel, only five were actually resolved, according to the just released FTC report for 2016.
=This had nothing to do with the 2,555 consumers who contacted the FTC either by telephone or by visiting the Green Hill based consumer watchdog agency seeking advice on matters relating to their rights under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA).
Of that number, 2,226 were telephone queries — mostly between July and September last year — and 329 were queries from consumers visiting the office of the commission. Forty-eight written queries were also lodged with the FTC.
“Five complaints which were recorded by the Commission during this assessment period were resolved. Three outstanding complaints from the 2014-2015 period were brought forward and resolved. One complaint from 2014–2015 was reopened, as the consumer provided additional information to substantiate the claim. This matter has now been resolved,” the report added.
During the April 2015 to March 2016 review period, a total of 112 complaints were made against utility companies with 70 of them, or 62.5 per cent, resolved within the same period. The majority – 78 per cent – were related to Cable & Wireless service and billing issues.
Amid persistent water outages that plagued mainly residents in the north and east of the island last year, the Barbados Water Authority accounted for 17 per cent of the total number of complaints, while the Barbados Light & Power Company accounted for the remaining five per cent.
However, when compared to 2015, there were 27 fewer complaints against the utility companies, whose resolution rate at the time was 72.9 per cent.
Overall, there was an increase in the number of companies operating in breach of the CPA.
In its 2016 annual report, the FTC said that of the 496 contract terms examined in 18 Standard Form Contracts for fairness in banking, retail, technology and other service sectors, 116 were breached.
This compares to the 1,590 terms examined and 71 terms breached in the 28 Standard Form Contracts that were reviewed the previous year.
“The Commission required the businesses to either delete or amend the offending terms to ensure that these businesses were in adherence with the law and is in dialogue with the businesses in order to achieve this,” the FTC said.
The FTC also reported that of the 396 stores to which unannounced visits were made during the period under review, 32 of them were engaged in “unfair trade practices” by displaying prohibited signs, which they were required to remove.
“Most of the businesses have subsequently complied,” the FTC said without naming the companies.
It also pointed out that daily newspapers were “monitored” in order to identify advertisements that contravened the CPA.
“As a result of the Commission’s vigorous educational programme on the CPA’s requirements only 12 advertisements were found to be in contravention of the CPA. The businesses were immediately advised to desist from the practice and comply with the CPA. All of the businesses either deleted or amended their advertisements,” the FTC said.
In response, consumer rights advocate Malcolm Gibbs-Taitt told Barbados TODAY the FTC must shoulder the blame for the increase in breaches to the Act.
He also suggested that public education was required to correct the issues arising with Standard Form Contracts, while calling for firm action to be taken against businesses found guilty of advertisements that were in contravention of the 14-year-old CPA.
In this regard, Gibbs-Taitt took particular issue with the commercial banking sector saying: “I am amazed at the number of advertising that goes into the paper that are in breach of that Act.
“For example, you may see some reference to the monthly amount or the rate of interest and nothing else,” Gibbs-Taitt said.
A frankly-speaking Gibbs-Taitt said he believed the consumer protection body had become too laid back in recent times.
“For us to be still telling people that they are in breach, something is very wrong about that. Some form of action needs to be taken. For example, if an advertisement is run and it is in breach of the Act, and you get to find out what is the cost of the ad, the FTC simply has to say to them that we demand the money that you are receiving to be paid to a charity,” he recommended.
“No paper would want to do that too often. So there are things that can be done. But I am of the view that in recent times the FTC has got very lax. They are not doing their work and this is roughly in the last two years that I have noticed the lax,” he said.