An open letter to the Minister of Consumer Affairs- The Hon., Leslie Miller- Bahamas
By Charles Fawkes
HOUSE OF LABOUR: Dear Sir: Almost two years into your first term as Consumer Minister- on behalf of the Bahamian Consumer Movement and as one of its leading spokesmen, I thought we would send you this open letter to express some consumer concerns. At the beginning of your government’s term we sent a similar letter to your Prime Minister. However, two years and thousands of words later your Prime Minister has not seen fit to mention the word consumer in any of his long eclectically speeches. Our remarks to him was reasonable and balanced, therefore, its with some regret we have to report to consumers that he has not seen fit to positively address in any meaningful way the concerns raised in the open letter to him.
You however are a different kettle of fish. You are directly charged with consumer affairs. Perhaps, we will have better luck with you.
To be honest minister, we have shadowed you closely since your assumption of office. When you attended the FTAA conferences we gave our input and pointed out areas we thought you were not sufficiently strong on. We howled and protested when you signed away oil-drilling rights and gave away the shop to foreign companies to drill our sea and land beds while extracting only 18 percent for the Bahamian people. Hopefully, you will seek better advice as you develop our National Energy Corporation. Quite frankly sir, we see quite a contradiction between you wanting to lower the price of gas for consumers- but when faced with the possibility of finding oil in the Bahamas- offered 82 percent to the oil company and keeping 18 percent for the Bahamas.
And Sir while you promote the Natural Liquefied gas investment for the Bahamas, we wish to register cautions given the full ramification of this project.
In today’s Bahamas consumers are becoming more assertive when expectations are not met. It would be a mistake for your government to view our movement as a scrappy group of activist, whistleblowers and skeptics. As you know Bahamian consumers are demanding that quality, honestly and integrity become the hallmarks of any administration in the Bahamas. Consumers are demanding medical, financial and privacy protection, better safeguards in managed care and responsible standards on global issues like trade, food safety and the environment. The numbers of conscious consumers are growing on a daily basis and these numbers are putting pressure on the providers of goods and services, through media outreach and socially responsible campaigns to improve the welfare of consumers generally. Consumers therefore, wish your administration to address the following concerns:
Firstly, consumers are alarmed over the current situation of rising prices in the food stores and at the gas pumps, the high price of low cost housing, the poor delivery and the high cost of poor medical care, the high cost of low level education, mortgage companies robbing consumers of their dream homes, traffic congestion on our streets, police brutality, the rising crime and murder rate in our country, and the unfair practices of the insurance and banking industries.
Secondly, consumers are seeking legislation to provide privacy protection, E Commerce legislation and a savings and lending disclosure act, and an instant funds act. In view of the add-on interest controversy, consumers insist the local banking institutions shouldn’t be permitted to engage in self-regulation where interest is involved. A savings and lending disclosure act should also be instituted. Further, consumers are interested in the following pieces of legislation that would allow them to deal more effectively with the areas of the economy that affect them most. A real estate disclosure act, and a fair trade disclosure act, a flood insurance act, a home equity act and a home mortgage disclosure act just to name a few.
Your government has agreed to pay interests on security deposits at Batelco, BEC, and the Water Corporations. After deciding your government arbitrarily said the deposits would be applied to consumer’s bill. What happened to all of the consultations on this issue? To date, there is an excess of $39,000,000 in principal alone owed to the consumers in the Bahamas by the Public Corporations and Cable Bahamas. If we were to add this compound interest at 5% over an average of 20 years for the Public Corporations and 5 years in the case of Cable Bahamas, we would be looking at a cumulative amount of $121,258,000 or an average of $1,810 per household.
The position of the Consumer Movement is that government cannot decide what to do with consumer’s interests. We would like to see the interests paid from the day the account opened and not as the government is suggesting as of this year.
Additionally, consumers expect a more active consumer protection department from your government than is being demonstrated. There are too many breaches of consumer’s welfare that go un-addressed. For example, in the area of product safety we need laws with teeth that stipulate that whatever the products; the providers should take responsibility for avoiding defects. When they have evidence of defective products they should remove the unsafe products from the market as quick as they sold them in the market in the first place. Consumers have a right to expect, an obligation to demand that government consumer protection agencies identify and take effective action where there is a major safety problem. When your protection agencies fail, consumers pay the ultimate prices.
So far minister, we have presented the downside of what has happened to consumer to assist you in shaping consumer friendly policies. One of the things consumers must fight for is the ending of predatory financial practices; this is one of the most important things we can do as a nation to show that we stand for basic economic fairness and decency. Instead of driving low and moderate-income families out of the economic mainstream, and into the arms of the “merchants of misery”, let’s make changes that help bring them into the economic mainstream and keep them in. Consumers in the Bahamas must also curb wasteful over consumption that threatens our environment before its too late. Research has shown that another sensible way to encourage savings is to rein in wasteful over consumption. In the current economic climate, consumers are constantly pressured to buy expensive, often unnecessary products and services, and live beyond their means. We shouldn’t get overly prescriptive about what people should and shouldn’t buy, because individuals needs and tastes vary. At the same time, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit there are disturbing consumption practices and habits that have a serious long-term impact. More broadly, we need to encourage more sustainable consumption practices:
1. By encouraging manufacturers to design and sell products that are more durable, economical and sustainable.
2. By promoting informed consumer choice and behavior that looks not just at what to buy, but at how many and how much, and how the product will be used, and whether it can be disposed of in a satisfactory manner when useful life is over.
3. By creating government regulatory and economic policies and incentives that support – and in certain cases require – these changes among manufactures, providers and consumers. Finally we need to be global stewards of the earth’s resources, and ensure that our consumption practices do not undermine the living standards of consumers in other countries, or those of future generations.
Minister, it was not our intention to make this open letter too long, you will appreciate however, that you are “the Consumer Minister” and Bahamians are waiting to give you an ear full.
In conclusion minister, one of the eight basic rights of consumers enshrined in the United Nations is the right to choose. For now, Bahamian consumers have chosen your party as the governing one.
Through this letter the consumer’s movement has chosen in your second year of office to inform you about our many concerns.
To summarize, for our system to work- we need strong public watchdogs, which include both government agencies and the consumer movement itself. We need to make investing in an effective consumer protection infrastructure a national priority, and we need to consider how this infrastructure can be improved and modernized. We need to help families meet their basic needs, and beat back predatory financial practices, so consumers will be able to live in dignity and save for the future. And we need to do more to curb wasteful over consumption practices that threaten the environment.
Therefore, minister we wish to pledge you our full support on all consumer matters. With that we will close with a word of caution, we have taken this opportunity to talk with you in your second year of your first term, and as consumers we hope to hear from you soon; otherwise, like we have said to other consumer ministers in the past, lets meet to discuss the way forward, or we will meet you in the streets and in the ballot boxes- and we assure that it will be the consumers that will emerge still standing.
Charles Fawkes is the President of the National Consumer Association and organizer for the Commonwealth Group of Unions, Inside Labour columnist for the Bahama Journal, Editor of the Headline News, The Consumerguard and the Worker’s Vanguard. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
He can be contacted at his office in the House of Labour at [1-242] 326-6620.