Home » Judicial » Consumer Protection Law Long Overdue

There is need for a fair, efficient and transparent marketplace for consumers and business in Zimbabwe. There is also need to promote consumer rights to basic needs as well as to provide for improved standards of consumer information and prohibition of unfair competition, marketing and business practices. For decades, Zimbabweans have been consuming and purchasing products without any specific legal protection from Government. The launch of the Consumer Protection Bill in October 2014, although long overdue, is a step in the right direction for Government in an effort to ensure that consumers are protected in every sphere.

Since Independence several fragmented pieces of legislation have been put in place to protect consumers. These include the Small Claims Court Act of 1992, which is mostly accessible to low income and middle income groups who cannot afford legal representation. The Consumer Contract Act of 1994 protects consumers against unfair contracts.

If enacted, the Consumer Protection Act will repeal the Consumer Contract Act.

Other legal provisions include the Patients Charter — which seeks to create an environment of mutual understanding, participation and humane treatment of patients while the Competition Act of 1996 encourages and promotes fair competition in all sectors of the economy. The Class Action Act Chapter 8:17 makes provision for consumers to jointly seek legal redress. Of importance in the Bill is the establishment of a commission that will ensure that the Act is operational and most importantly the commission will be capable of suing and being sued in its corporate name and subject to the Act.

The Bill also realises that safeguarding the interests of consumers has been done by different agencies, associations and forums which include Zimbabwe National Editors Forum, farmers’ associations, the Competition and Tariff Commission, the Standard Association of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce and many others. These will be part of the Consumer Protection Commission.

While this is a noble idea to ensure that all these agencies and forums speak with one voice, there is need to ensure that the commission does not fall in the same trap of inadequate funding.

The commission will have an enormous task to co-ordinate and regulate all consumer activities. A number of these could not execute their duties as they are underfunded to strictly monitor economic activities in the country.

The Standard Association of Zimbabwe for example struggles to monitor goods that get into the country to ensure that they are in line with consumer expectations and according to the standard the organisation sets. Besides, it has even failed to protect its logo which has been abused by producers at all levels as they simply stick it to their products without certification from the organisation. Consultations for the Consumer Protection Bill led by the consumer watchdog, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe are, according to media reports, progressing well with huge attendances having been experienced in Masvingo, Bulawayo, Mutare and just recently in Harare.

However, funding for consumer consultations should be availed to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe to enable it to come up with meaningful contributions that will see both rural and urban consumers contributing to the Act and having their interests safeguarded through the Act.

In South Africa, the Consumer Protection Act led to the creation of a fund where business is entitled to contribute towards the smooth operation of the Act. Other resources are raised through fines paid by offenders, something which can be done in Zimbabwe as well. The South Africa Consumer Protection legislation was enacted in 2011 and saw the formation of a commission tasked to promote consumer rights and a far market place for all.

The Industry and Commerce Minister during the launch of the Consumer Protection Bill already alluded to the fact that this piece of legislation was already long overdue.

It is therefore in Government’s hands to ensure that the Bill is passed into law.

Legislators have of late been debating strategies to improve the business environment which will only be meaningful if there are strategies to protect consumers, one of them being the enactment of consumer protection law.

While local companies are building their capacity to produce adequate goods for the local market and beyond, there are substandard goods that have flooded the local market, many of them priced unfairly and more so a risk to the health of many Zimbabweans.

They come packaged and with directions of use written in unknown languages. Some of these ranging from food to non-food products have been smuggled into the country and therefore their origins can not be tracked in the vent that something bad happens.

There are exploitative relationships that need to be dealt with between consumers and business. Companies have for long taken aantage of consumers due to absence of legislation that protects the interests of consumers. Responding to some issues, Government has set up commissions of inquiry that unfortunately take long to resolve issues.

In some cases most of them die a natural death before any investigation is conducted.

Having a commission that deals specifically with business and consumer issues will ensure that issues of concern are dealt with and measures are put in place to ensure that the same issues do not crop up. In most cases, consumers are taken aantage of because of lack of information. Fortunately, relaying relevant information and educating consumers on their rights, entitlements and responsibilities is one of the key areas that the commission and its stakeholders will be tasked to undertake.

Plans are currently under-way to form a consumer SADC committee that will push for protection of consumers within the region. Having such a committee is a noble idea but will be difficult to implement if SADC countries do not have specific legislation to protect their own local consumers.

Source : The Herald