Minister of State in the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, Hon. Michael Stern, has said that in the new global economic environment, more emphasis has to be placed on protecting consumers.
“With the liberalisation of markets globally, privatisation of Government services, increased Internet usage and developments in new technologies, consumers need to be properly protected in the market,” the State Minister said.
He was speaking at the launch of the ‘Promotion of Consumer Protection Project in the Caribbean’, today (November 24), at the Knutsford Court Hotel, in Kingston.
Mr. Stern argued that in order to effectively protect consumers, there should be increased focus on the efficient enforcement of existing legislation; the suitability of credit products and the role of credit intermediaries; and pre-contractual information about credit products in a standardised, comparable format, in clear and simple language.
He pointed out that people want to be careful about their spending and for that, they need transparent prices, as they need to be able to compare offers, shop around and find the best deals.
Citing the Consumer Affairs Commission’s (CAC) recent survey of banking fees and rates in the Jamaican banking sector, he said that much was revealed regarding the disparity in bank charges, which pointed, somewhat, to a lack of transparency.
State Minister in the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, Hon. Michael Stern (centre), listens to Director General of Consumers International, Mr. Joost Martens (right), at the launch of the ‘Promotion of Consumer Protection Project in the Caribbean’, held at the Knutsford Court Hotel, in Kingston, today (November 24). At left is Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Consumer Affairs Commission and President of the Caribbean Consumer Council, Ms. Dolsie Allen.
“Bank accounts are essential for consumers to manage their financial affairs. Yet, as the survey report indicates, the unclear structure of bank fees hinder consumers from comparing different offers and shopping around, or to transfer their accounts. Even experts could have difficulty figuring out these bank fees. So, imagine what the average consumer has to go through,” Mr. Stern lamented.
He said that the Government is committed to the protection of consumers, especially as certain public services are being privatised, or taken off the public sector budget. Mr. Stern noted that it is for this reason that the CAC was established to protect the interests of consumers.
The State Minister further pointed out that protecting the consumer of financial services is also of primary importance to the Government, which has been facilitated by the establishment of the Financial Services Commission (FSC), whose mandate is to supervise and regulate the securities, insurance and private pensions industries.
He said that vulnerable consumers are often taking a considerable risk when purchasing financial products, and that even well informed consumers have problems understanding the consequences of signing up for loans or investments.
“In these difficult economic times, it is particularly important to focus on the problems faced by the most vulnerable in our society – from the single mother struggling to pay her light bill to the ill-informed investor who is being swindled by pyramid schemes,” the State Minister said.
Mr. Stern suggested that improving information provided to consumers, which would make it easier for them to compare offers and to switch providers; and ensuring that existing legislation is properly enforced, could help consumers overcome some of the barriers and challenges they face when they interface with markets.
“Our consumer legislation, however, is only effective if they are properly enforced. We must, therefore, commit ourselves to ensuring that enforcement is more effective, efficient and consistent throughout the Caribbean region,” he said.
Minister of State in the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, Hon. Michael Stern (left), in discussion with Director General of Consumers International, Mr. Joost Martens, at the launch of the ‘Promotion of Consumer Protection Project in the Caribbean’, held at the Knutsford Court Hotel, in Kingston, today (November 24). Looking on at centre is Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, Mr. Reginald Budhan.
The State Minister argued that the key ingredients for an inclusive Caribbean regional consumer policy must include: no discrimination against consumers; clear and accurate information, so that consumers can choose the services they need at a reasonable price; and proper enforcement, because without it, consumer rights are deemed ineffective.
“These principles must govern all markets and be reflected in all sectors – from energy and financial services to telecoms. We must make sure that the markets for basic services are fair and accessible to everyone – regardless of where they live or how much they earn,” he added.
The ‘Promotion of Consumer Protection Project in the Caribbean’ is a three-year project being implemented in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, which focusses on the promotion of consumer protection in the Caribbean.
According to Project Co-ordinator, Ms. Candice Ramessar, the project was conceived against the background of the changing global economic environment, the formation of trading blocks, and the consequences and the opportunities that those provide for consumers and consumer protection in the Caribbean region.
She said that the purpose of the project is to deepen regional integration and market reform in the target countries, through the strengthening of consumer protection capacity. It also seeks to re-enforce the capacity of the non-governmental and Governmental agencies that are involved in consumer protection, to be able to more effectively carry out their mandates.