Historically the 15 March 1962 is considered to be the first milestone in defining basic consumer rights . This recalls a memorable address by the US President John F. Kennedy to the American Congress when JFK identified four basic consumer rights. Though much has been done since then, there is still a long way to go. Hence though consumer awareness has increased especially in recent years few consumers are able to identify their basic consumer rights.
Since JFK’s address in 1962 the consumer movement has developed a vision based on a universally recognized set of eight basic rights. These basic rights are the foundations which underlie much of the consumer protection legislation which has been enacted to date. The eight basic rights as identified by the international community are:
· The right to satisfaction of basic needs – To have access to basic, essential goods and services including food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, efficient public utilities, water and sanitation. Though this right is considered by many as having been achieved in western societies, the changes which occurred and are occurring in modern society are impacting negatively on this basic right. Whereas up to the early eighties these rights were secured by all governments, the commercialization of these services once considered as basic requirements is being denied yet again to the new poor of modern society.
· The right to safety – To be protected against products, production processes and services which are hazardous to health or life. With the development of new technologies in all aspects of life new chemicals are being introduced. The main problem with this aspect is that man still has to understand properly the possible harmful effects of these new chemicals in the long run. This is one right where it is virtually impossible for consumers to exercise themselves as their knowledge is limited. This is one right which only governments can secure for consumers. The unfortunate thing is that governments are nowadays ready to take risks in order to safeguard economic growth to the evident detriment of the general consumer well-being.
· The right to be informed – To be given the correct facts to make an informed choice, and to be protected against dishonest or misleading advertising and labelling. Until a few years ago, it was thought that all it takes to guarantee this right is more information. The problem today is that consumers are inundated by loads of information characterized by jargon which even ‘experts’ fail to understand properly. The problem of information overload is very evident for example in the financial sector where very technical information is used with scarce attention to the basic need to inform consumers in plan and understandable language.
· The right to choose – To be able to select from a range of products and services, offered at competitive prices with an assurance of satisfactory quality. This right can only be effective in competitive markets. There are two reasons. The first is that such a market can offer a large range of goods and services. The second reason is that only through a competitive market can consumers exercise this right. This is the present challenge which Maltese consumers are facing today in all sectors. The small size of Malta is already a limiting factor. The challenge faced by consumers in Malta is to ensure that the government is does not defend the turf of those operators who enjoy almost monopolistic dominance at the expense of both new entrants and consumers.
· The right to be heard – To have consumer interests represented in the making and execution of government policy, and in the development of products and services. This is a right that consumers exercise either through their associations or by making their voice head either on media or by involving themselves when there is public consultation. The rationale behind this right is ‘better safe than sorry’. This right nowadays takes a substantial chunk of the time used by the consumer movement and is usually done behind the scenes.
· The right to redress – To receive a fair settlement of just claims, including compensation for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services. No amount of care from the business sector will be able to ensure that consumers always get their due. The right of redress is thus essential to rectify such situations. However so that this right is truly effective, the redress process must be simple, timely and inexpensive.
· The right to consumer education – To acquire knowledge and skills needed to make informed, confident choices about goods and services, while being aware of basic consumer rights and responsibilities and how to act on them. This right recognizes that consumer awareness is a life-skill. This is especially so in a market environment where the consumers must be aware of their rights to ensure that they get a fair deal.
· The right to a healthy environment -To live and work in an environment which is nonthreatening to the well-being of present and future generations. This right elongates the dimension of the above rights to the future to ensure that future generations have at least as good an environment to live in as we do. It is this right which requires that the consumer movement actively involves itself in such areas such as GMOs which though may initially appear to be beneficial to consumers in reality present serious unknown factors which might impact negatively on the environment.
‘Consumers, by definition, include us all,’ Kennedy said in his Congressional Statement,
‘They are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet they are the only important group… whose views are often not heard.’
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