Peace and Conflict

Consumer protection in Sri Lanka: Seeing beyond rice, coconut and milkfood

Consumer protection! It’s of those widely desired, critically needed yet rarely found practices in Sri Lanka. When it does happen, even falteringly, the practice is largely confined to everyday consumer goods, mainly food items – ranging from our staples rice and bread to essentials like coconut, sugar and milkfood. Throw in LP gas, pharmaceuticals, fish and chicken, and the mix is about complete.

Or is it? Surely, our consumer needs and wants stretch way beyond these basic items? In twenty-first century Sri Lanka, when service industries dominate over manufacturing, retail and cultivation, why aren’t we consumers paying enough attention to safeguarding our rights on the service fronts?

A few examples illustrate these big gaps:

  •       The country’s electricity supply duopoly (CEB/LECO) introduced new tariffs in March based on blocks of kilowatt hours (called units). There are sharp increases in the billing rate when certain thresholds are exceeded (apparently to force a reduction in consumption). A month’s usage is calculated by a meter-reader who visits every household approximately once every 30 days. But a day’s delay in the reader’s visit (entirely plausible and, in fact, a regular occurrence) can push the count slightly above a threshold – resulting in an increase of several hundred or thousand rupees in that month’s billing.
  •       Thanks to far-sighted regulation sustained for over a decade, the country’s telecom sector has shown vigorous growth — in 2007, we had 54 telephones per 100 persons. But no fixed or mobile phone operator publishes a clear, simple rate card. Instead, the current or potential consumer is confused by many and varied packages each with highly specific, heavily conditional billing rates. And none of the operators tells us upfront that for every Rs. 100 we spend on any telecom service, there is a total of around Rs. 26 in various government taxes.
  •       Some commercial banks have hidden tariffs or charges which are never flagged upfront for customers, but are quietly debited to our bank balances – we only find out from monthly bills! When confronted, banks will resort to convoluted bankspeak or, as I have found out with more than one bank, they would refund such charges if we protest. Last year, I also had the experience of a bank slapping Rs. 99 per month for several months before I noticed and questioned it – apparently for some ‘smart wallet’ insurance premium that I never signed up for! When I threatened to report them to the regulator (Central Bank), the bank immediately reversed all deductions — but how many customers might they have duped and robbed that way?
  •       It’s not just a matter of prices and levies. Some service-providing companies build up large databases about their customers, who are asked to disclose personal details before a service is provided. In the absence of strict privacy and data protection laws in Sri Lanka, this information is later bandied around, and sometimes, we suspect, sold to marketers keen to customise their offerings. How else can I explain receiving junk mail and spam emails from companies I’d never contacted? Who safeguards our right to consumer data protection?

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Fleecing or tricking or under-serving the consumer/customer/client almost seems like the default setting in many government and private sector establishments that provide a range of everyday services. We have few regulators, some of who are too weak to assert their statutory powers to crack the whip when needed.

Then, of course, there are the professionals who are in a league of their own. Ranging from accountants, architects and doctors to lawyers and tax consultants, they consider themselves above and beyond any questioning by their fee-paying clients. If their professional advice were to backfire (due to negligence or even in good faith), they will hardly ever apologise or explain, let alone compensate.

A cynic might ask whether we can expect individual professionals or companies to be responsible, honest service providers in a society that is sliding into deeper and more endemic levels of corruption. But it cannot all be blamed on systemic failures; we as individuals must ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to assert our rights as consumers.

We allow things to get worse if we passively accept or grudgingly tolerate whenever we are being under-served, mis-served or hoodwinked by a service provider. And why do we treat professional services any differently, and often with needless deference?

British author Rory Spowers, in his interesting book A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks (2007) on living and farming in Sri Lanka, remarks how doctors are treated like priests here, with their conclusions never questioned or probed. “Having spent relatively large sums of money, they return home with brown paper bags filled with pills. Asked what the doctor had said was wrong with them, or what the pills were, they could rarely answer,” he says about his Sri Lankan friends.

There is a both a ministry and an authority for consumer affairs maintained at considerable public expense. There are also consumer protection societies, though nowhere near as vocal as they should be. Well meaning as they all maybe, their mindset is still firmly rooted in the last century when ours was more a goods-trading economy than one based on services. That probably explains why are they all obsessed with basic food, drugs and fuel, and hardly ever hold to account the multitude of service providers. Beneath everyone’s radars, the service mudalalis must be laughing all the way to their banks!

Who can kick our consumer protectors into the twenty first century?

The author is a long-suffering Sri Lankan consumer who has made himself highly unpopular with some wayward service providers.