28 November 2013

Namibia: Consumer Rights Activists' Take On the Consumer Protection Act

Namibia still lacks legislation on consumer protection but we are told that a bill is in the works.

Chairman of the Law Reform Commission of Namibia, Sacky Shangala in May this year urged consumer lobbyists and the public to be patient.

"What they [consumer activists] can do now is give us time. They should also speak to parliamentarians but if they have complaints, they should complain in the context of what we are already doing?," he said.

Shangala declined to give a time frame for work to be finalised on the law but said that the commission and the Ministry of Trade and Industry is working tirelessly to make this law a reality.

What currently passes for consumer protection law is either scattered in judicial determinations and administrative practices such as the Usury Act and the the Credit Agreements Act.

This leaves the consumer in a vulnerable position and being taken advantage of due to imbalances in economic terms, education levels and bargaining.

According to Milton Louw from the Namibian Consumer Protection Group, consumers need direct protection from shoddy service and low quality products among others. Consumer rights advocates feel that the law should have a clause that includes defects, deficiency, distribution, downstream processor fail market price and unfair trade practices. The UN guidelines around issues such as economic interest, essential consumer goods and services should be implemented. The principles of consumer protection should be laid out to ensure consumer protection in trade, businesses, commercial and economic transactions.

Michael Gaweseb of Namibia Consumer Trust adds: "What is key is for consumers to represent themselves in court without having to rely on legal practitioners. Class action must also be enabled and alternative dispute resolution must also exist. Consumers should not have to prove negligence on the part of the seller/manufacturer when claiming damages. The retailer must accept equal blame as manufacturer. The act must provide room for price management from a consumer perspective. Most importantly, the act must create a state owned enterprise to specifically deal with consumer protection. All other regulators and acts must be subjected to this one as the supreme organ for consumer protection. This organisation must be manned by people who demonstrated interest in consumer protection, provided they possess the necessary qualifications. It must also regulate credit bureaus. These are all important issues, especially an SOE's ability to regulate other regulators on consumer protection. Otherwise, it may be better to leave the situation as is, if other regulators are allowed to solely regulate their sectors as most of them neglected their duties while obtaining state funding.

"The above can be achieved by establishing tribunals to deal with unfair trade practices, restrictive or harmful trade practices which include the regulation of monopoly undertakings and anti-competitive practices. In addition, 'civil society' small claims courts which are financially, geographically accessible and arbitration committees should be created.

"With small claims courts, the nature, jurisdiction, procedure, evidence, execution of judgment and the rules will be drawn up to suit the consumers," he said.

According to consumer rights advocate Robert Parker, any consumer rights council "must be an independent body, with a neutral board with clear rules on conflict of interest for board members. The body must be able to intervene in specific cases."

With this act, the remedies for any crime against the consumer can clearly be determined and punishable by law like any other crime. This also gives room for easy amendment and adjustments of the law as it would be required to keep the law abreast of technological, environment, social, economic and cultural dynamics.

It will prevent consumers from being deprived of their access to affordable, decent and safe technology, goods and services in the fields of basic or essential needs. Linking the government to consumer needs will make them uphold the laws and enforce them.

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