Most of the recent parliamentary sittings were taken up discussing the necessary changes to the Consumer Affairs Act to bring it in line with European Union directives and regulations. But there is still a lot to do to protect consumers in our islands when they are treated badly by the government, which is obliged to provide essential services like education, health and social welfare; and by commercial companies selling their goods and services. In a market economy the state has a very important role to play by regulating the market so that society is run by the rule of law and not the law of the jungle.
In May 1982 I was one of the founder members of the Consumer Association which is still active. I remember highly intelligent persons, some of them occupying top public posts, who used to tell me that I should be using my free time on more important things than trying to raise consumer awareness and lobby for measures to protect consumers. Since then we have moved on and today there are more people who believe that consumer protection is one of the essential characteristics of a functioning democracy and a high quality of life. Some newspapers devote space to consumer affairs and some consumer education goes on in our schools. But consumer awareness is still weak and only a minority knows how to look after its rights when they are infringed. Very few people bother to join the Consumer Association or support it actively, unless for a short time until they sort out their complaint if they decide to do something when they feel let down when buying a service or a product.
On the whole the prevailing mentality is that consumer affairs consists only in taking steps to address a problem when you buy an appliance and it does not work, or it breaks down soon after you buy it. It is mainly about getting value for money. Consumer rights are much more than that. In 1985 the United Nations General Assembly declared that consumers have eight basic rights: the right to satisfying basic needs such as essential goods and services, food, clothing, shelter and health care and the rights to be given redress, education and have a healthy environment
Many of these basic rights are not being safeguarded, even in our islands. We have at least 60,000 people living in poverty. Often they are “unheard and unseen” as Dr Angela Abela and Fr Carmel Tabone have pointed out in their report published last year. As they are not in a situation to lobby for their own interests they are invisible from the public agenda set by the media, political parties, business organizations and other strong interest groups. But 21% of our children and elderly live in poverty and are denies their basic rights. The most effective way to protect them is not to change some words in a law but to take measures to improve essential public measures like education, health care and social services and redistribute wealth in society through measures aimed at lifting 60,000 people out of poverty.
Apart from protecting these vulnerable persons we can only improve consumer protection in our islands if we change the laws and the set-up of all the different regulators who should be protecting consumers from government and the private sector. Most of these regulators like the Malta Resources Authority, the Malta Communications Authority, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, the Malta Financial and Services Authority, and the Medicines Authority, are too weak and ineffective when it comes to consumer protection. They are simply an extension of government ministries and they either take no initiatives to protect consumers or side with government when they should be holding government to account.
No wonder that local consumers are defenceless in the face of decisions that erode their purchasing power or damage their quality of life such as the increase in water and electricity bills, rises in the cost of medicines, the waiting for years to undergo surgery in a public hospital, the destruction of our natural environment and an unacceptable high rate of teenagers who complete their schooling without acquiring the basic competences to succeed in today’s society. Some banks and stockbrokers have been allowed to get away with tricking people into investing their money in very risky schemes without any careful explanation of what this involved. In other countries like Spain and Italy investors got their money back but in Malta they have lost most of their money while the banks and the stockbrokers earned their commission.
A few months ago government liberalised the funeral services offered by private hearses, promising that they would improve, prices would go down and coffins would be provided with no cost at all. These claims now look more ridiculous than when they were made as coffins still come at a price, the transport costs of hearses have increased and the services have deteriorated. It is very clear that local consumers have very little protection, whether in life or in death!
We need proper and effective regulators that are independent of government and are ready to hold it to account and ensure fairness in a market economy.