Editorial
March 25, 2022
Robust Consumer Response Needed

By now, we should all be familiar with the complaints about how skyrocketing prices are hitting us hard, left, right and centre with little respite seemingly in sight.

Whether big or small, importing company or humble consumer, we are all unwilling victims, only that some are in a position to pass on the increases, with a little ‘lagniappe’ added of course. It brings home a truth to us all, that whatever else we are, like it or lump it, we are all consumers.

The unavoidable conclusion is that there are common interests which bind us all together, rich or poor, from the “country” or from the “town”, from the island of St Vincent or from Union Island, Canouan or Bequia. If, as we do in daily life, we can unite on the basis of politics, religion or social and economic outlook, why not on the basis of common interests, those of consumers of goods and services?

Our situation as a small island developing nation, heavily dependent on imports of services as well as goods, further leaves us exposed to price gouging from unscrupulous merchants and service providers, meaning that in addition to the international factors, hikes in oil prices, shipping etc., we also take an additional hit. The typical response is an appeal to government for subsidies, reduction in taxes and similar charges and a plea for greater support for the most vulnerable groups. Some political aspirants also come up with all sorts of unrealistic and idealistic solutions.

But what about we, ourselves? Is there a role for us, actions we can take? Ten days ago, the Department of Consumer Affairs in the Ministry of Trade commemorated World Consumer Day. That is laudable but nice platitudes are not enough, nor would they be able to put a lid on skyrocketing prices or the exploitation of consumers.

Years ago, we used to have an active price Control Department with committed persons like the late Dennis ‘Prick’ London, not only taking an active check on not just prices but also the quality of goods sold, and not afraid to prosecute even some of the biggest firms here. We have long departed from those practices but appeals to obey the laws and observe honest practices are not enough.
The banana export industry to the UK and Europe from the Caribbean was undermined by the twin actions on price and quality. But if we take a look at our food imports today, the irony is that it is again price, not decreasing as in bananas, but skyrocketing which is crippling consumers. Compounding it, consumers complain daily about the quality of food imports.

Our complaints are not enough. Since the late seventies there have been local efforts to build a strong National Consumers Association. A fledgling one still exists. Should we not throw our combined weight behind it to make it stronger to represent and protect our interests? At the same time, we must put pressure on the government to ensure that the department of Consumer Affairs is not just some toothless bureaucratic arm, but is active and prepared to lead the way in defence of the rights of consumers.

We too can play our part, and must, otherwise our frequent complaints will continue to fall on deaf ears.