By Marlon Madden
As Barbadians await word from the Government on a possible new compact with the private sector to help ease the cost of living, the island’s main advocacy group is urging authorities to be vigilant and ensure any new deal actually benefits consumers.
Executive Director of the Barbados Consumer Empowerment Network (BCEN) Maureen Holder told Barbados TODAY that was crucial since, as far as her organisation was concerned, consumers did not benefit from the last compact which ended last month.
She explained that while retailers who signed on to the agreement did exercise price control on the 45 items in the basket of goods, the prices went up significantly on other items, resulting in consumers still paying “astronomically high prices”.
Holder said authorities should ensure this does not occur under any new compact.
“So, whereas you may see some reduction in the basket of goods, on other items that were not included in that basket of goods the prices went up and that is a concern. You are giving it in one hand and taking it back in another. So, we would want that type of behaviour to be stomped out,” she said.
“[Retailers] could say ‘no, you cannot tell us what to do because we did not agree with the Government that we will not carry certain mark-ups on certain items. Those items are not in the compact and if you can afford it and you want to purchase it, you have to purchase it at the price we put it at’. So, that is something you have to be mindful of.”
The Government and the private sector had agreed to cap mark-ups on 45 food and household items, from the end of July last year to January 31, 2023. However, many of the retailers said the arrangement did not benefit them.
Following the expiration of the compact last Tuesday, Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry officials indicated that fresh proposals were presented to the Government, though they were not disclosed.
Noting that she was not aware of what was presented as a potential new compact, Holder told Barbados TODAY it was now a wait-and-see game.
“We welcome any initiative to ease the pressure off consumers who are already financially burdened. Consumers need to know something is being done in their interest. So, let’s wait and see what the compact will look like after the negotiations,” the BCEN executive director said.
However, she agreed the deal should “have something in there for retailers” as well.
“Obviously, there have to be some incentives for retailers to get back into it after claiming that it was not beneficial to them. So, the key question is, what would incentivise retailers to get back in a compact with the Government? We don’t know those details until we get further updates on a renegotiated compact when it is done,” Holder said.
In any event, she argued that consumers have been subjected to high and rising prices for the past few years, though she acknowledged that had been exacerbated by several global shocks such as the ongoing war in Ukraine.
At the same time, she said, the BCEN did not expect consumers to bear these rising costs for any lengthy period and it was, therefore, critical for the Government and the private sector to provide some ease.
She argued that if residents were continuously subjected to rising costs, that could lead to “social frustration and eventual breakdown of the family unit and wider society, especially when people become desperate”.
Noting that wages and salaries have not increased to match the “capricious” rise in inflation, Holder said consumers were being forced to purchase less and families were finding it especially difficult to make ends meet.
“BCEN welcomes any measure that will ease the burden and quell the frustration of consumers,” she said.
“We are concerned about the inflation and the cost of living for consumers, the spending power and the impact on their finances. So, if the compact does not positively compact upon the purchasing power of consumers and consumers are not able to see a significant change in their spending power, they will largely remain in the same position
where their social welfare comes under further threat.”
The consumer advocate added that she would like to see more competition in the market, insisting that “prices in Barbados are too high”.