THE Consumer Protection Association (CPA) in Lesotho is on a mission to educate Basotho on their consumer rights and protect them from unfair practices by unscrupulous service providers. This follows the government’s commitment to the United Nations Consumers’ Rights Protocol. The convention outlines eight international consumer rights the government has reflected in the Lesotho Consumer Protection Policy. The Lesotho Times (LT) spoke to CPA Executive Director Nkareng Letsie (NL) about the effectiveness of consumer protection systems in Lesotho.
LT: How protected are consumers in Lesotho?
NL: The current consumer protection status is not encouraging. As the Consumer Protection Association, we strongly feel that consumer vulnerability is very high in this country. A significant number of Basotho do not know their consumer rights and in the last 14 years, the association has been raising consumer awareness to help them understand they should demand the kind of service and quality of goods they want. A lot still needs to be done to empower consumers who should not compromise their standards at the expense of their health and especially because one cannot afford to lose his or her hard-earned cash. We have a situation where the balance of scale is biased towards the business community at large and other service providers. Consumers are trampled upon on a daily basis, and yet we do not see the outrage we expect from people who understand their rights. The latest example is the bloodworm water crisis, where the lives of hundreds of people were put at risk due to poor service delivery by the Water and Sewerage Company (WASCO); we saw a largely business-as-usual response. Those who felt they could afford bottled water, they quietly bought bottled water while many had to boil their drinking water, which should not have been the only response from the consumers. Through our association, consumers can come together and plan actions that would have ensured that the bloodworm crisis does not repeat itself. There are many other consumer-vulnerability scenarios that happen every day, and the majority of the perpetrators get away with it. This is because many consumers lack knowledge of how to tackle the abuse of their rights while others do not know they need to take action, if for example – a woman’s scalp is burnt in a salon. We have some consumers who understand their rights but are reluctant to take up their cases to the courts for various reasons, including the length of time it can take before the case is finalised.
LT: When you say most consumers do not know their rights, whose responsibility is it to ensure they are well educated in this area and do you also think enough is being done to fulfil this mandate of protecting the consumers?
Firstly, not enough is being done to strengthen consumer protection in this country.
I would say service-providers, both in the formal and informal sectors, have an obligation to ensure they integrate consumer-rights in their practices for sustained service-delivery or sustained business operations. They have a role to play in ensuring that, for example, the goods they are selling comes along with sufficient information to help the consumers understand what they are buying. Wherever there is a transaction, fair practice is expected to ensure a win-win situation. The consumers want to continue buying certain goods from the service-provider and it is up to the service- provider to ensure the client keeps coming back in order for them to remain in business while meeting the customer’s needs.
On the other hand, the government also has a major responsibility to continuously drive consumer-education and promote consumer-rights through programmes targeting various service- providers. This is a mandatory component of the consumer-protection policy framework. Because when we talk of service-providers, we refer to people or companies that supply goods or offer to supply any service to a consumer. Such services are broad and so are the consumers. This wide transaction requires a vibrant regulatory body composed of various actors including law-enforcement agents empowered by a legal framework that ensures fair practices and also ensure that consumers are well-informed; the needs of both the consumers and the service-providers are met; swift provision of redress where consumers are not satisfied is provided and also ensures risk-based enforcement, among other areas.
As a consumer-protection association, we also have a role to play to educate the consumers. We are a platform that consumers can use to advocate for their rights, support redress by ensuring fair collective bargaining where consumers are mistreated and to protect them against unfair tariffs for services such as water and electricity. We also monitor the prices of basic necessities and fuel to ensure consumers are not ripped-off.
LT: From your experience, what would be the starting point in helping improve consumers’ understanding of their rights?
NL: I think the right to information is the most critical because without information, you lack knowledge and cannot ask pertinent questions. This is a major issue when consumers buy goods on higher-purchase or when they take a loan from the bank. They need information to make informed decisions. Consumers, in most cases, find themselves in difficult situations when a challenge arises after they buy goods on hire-purchase. They are told things they did not initially understand or were not told during an agreement. Service-providers, in some cases, assume that the consumer would read an agreement-of-sale and unfortunately, that is not the case in most cases when people borrow money from financial service-providers. It is also important to know that some financial service- providers do not understand some financial tools and unless a client asks, they will not provide clear guidance or explanation. It is for that reason, in some cases, that some consumers have taken some financial companies to court over the huge interest they would have charged because the fine print was not adequately explained to the consumer. Issues of insurance are pertinent when getting a loan from financial service-providers and most people do not know the periods they are covered by insurances in the event of unforeseen events that may cause them not to make their monthly payments.
In addition, consumers should have knowledge of how the electric and other gadgets they are buying are operated, their guarantees and terms and condition. We have had cases of consumers who bought mobile phones under false specifications and when they returned them, the service-providers could not entertain them. This brings the issue of labelling goods such as food and making the expiry dates clear to ensure consumers buy food that is safe for consumption. Consumers also need to understand the importance of reading those labels to prevent the inconveniences of having to bring back rotten products or falling sick, in addition to keeping their receipts after they purchase goods, including fuel. These receipts come handy as proof of transaction in court or when returning bad goods or importantly, for budgeting purposes.
LT: Apart from scrutinising expiry dates, how can consumers be sure that what they are buying to eat or drink is safe and not dumped by dubious mass producers? This also goes with non-food items that sometimes appear cheap but later prove expensive because of their poor quality.
NL: Goods and services that appear cheap, can be expensive. It is true that some African countries have become dumping grounds for various products rejected in countries that have stronger quality control systems. The government has a responsibility to protect consumers by ensuring such harmful and poor-quality products do not enter the country and that consumers enjoy their right to good quality and safe goods. This also goes together with consumers’ right to choose or right of choice of a country to say we do not want this product in our country and of a consumer to say, I would like to buy some pork, but not this one on display, do you have any other for me to see and consider buying.
LT: You were talking earlier on of the right to redress and the difficulties resulting from the non-availability of legislation to help consumers take action when they are not satisfied with service delivery. What interventions are currently available which consumers can make use of?
NL: The Ministry of Industry and Trade has a department that deals with consumer-protection issues, including intervening in disputes and ensuring consumers are heard. The Maseru Municipality and civil and small claims courts also tackle issues of consumer-protection. As an association, we also have unhappy consumers who visit our offices looking for quick intervention and we are currently helping quite a number of people to either recover the money paid for a poor service or get a new product after the one they had bought developed a fault before the lapse of warrant, among many other cases. The interventions we have in Lesotho currently are not enough to protect consumers and some service- providers are aware of this anomaly hence their arrogance. We are advocating for new and improved redress mechanisms that are fair, easily accessible, affordable and expeditious to deal with complaints and effectively assist consumers.
LT: One of the rights that is denied some people in Lesotho is the right to a healthy environment. What measures should be taken to ensure this right is respected?
NL: This is a major issue because it touches on many issues including waste management, sanitation and livestock- rearing in areas that do not have space large enough to allow such activities. This is an area mainly tackled by local councils to ensure there is an effective provision of services that will keep the environment clean and by-laws enforcement to ensure that my neighbour’s pigs, sheep and cows do not disturb my peace, for example. We are aware that in many parts of Maseru, the management of waste is a disaster, particularly when it comes to burning of refuse at household level, which causes air pollution; the regulation of pit-latrines; and emptying of septic-tanks, the fee attached and ensuring the septic-tanks are properly constructed not to release waste into the environment or water-table. In addition, we continue to advocate for the introduction of bio-degradable shopping bags or putting in place mechanisms that would make plastic bags valuable in order to stop littering and promote their recycling. I would also like to emphasise that it is not only the right to a clean environment that is critical to ensure improved health, but also issues of noise-pollution are largely unregulated in this country where we find noisy taverns whose structures are not noise-proof, right in residential areas. This not only endangers the residents when disputes that end in shooting break-out but also promotes uncleanliness. Some of these places lack proper and sufficient facilities such as toilets.