The Consumer Protection Act: What the Consumer Needs to Know
“All sales are final and non-refundable” policies are popular amongst a number of boutiques and shops. Many businesses choose to institute this type of policy to save themselves time and money. Consumers in Zimbabwe often fall prey to inappropriate marketing strategies, improper business practices and unfair contractual agreements. The Consumer Protection Act (Chapter 14:14), which came into force in Zimbabwe in December 2019, seeks to promote a fair, accessible and sustainable marketplace for products and services and to improve the relationship between consumers and businesses.
This article focuses on the rights of consumers under the Consumer Protection Act. The article also touches on enforcement mechanisms, offences and penalties as provided for in the Act.
WhAT ARE CONSUMER RIGHTS?
Commerce dictates that everyone is a consumer from time to time. A consumer is the final user of a purchased product or service. An example of a consumer is a person who purchases a new fridge or a family purchasing a flight for a holiday. On the other hand, a right is an entitlement which is protected by law. Taken together, consumer rights refer to the freedoms held by consumers in the market place.
Technological advancements and globalization have led to an expansion of the range of consumer products available on the market. Online shopping based on catalogues is an example of a shopping forum wherein consumers may purchase substandard goods or have the wrong item delivered. To exacerbate the situation, consumers may encounter challenges when seeking redrees. It is essential to safeguard consumers thus the formulation of consumer protection legislation was inevitable.
The SADC Declaration on Regional Competition and Consumer Policies and the United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Policies recognise and enunciate the rights of the consumer. The Consumer Protection Act is in line with the UN Guidelines as it guarantees the following consumer rights:
§ The right to consumer education and awareness;
§ The right to health and safety;
§ The right to choose;
§ The right to information;
§ The right to be heard, representation and redress
§ The right to fair contractual agreements.
THE RIGHT TO CONSUMER EDUCATION AND AWARENESS
The Consumer Protection Act affords consumers the right to consumer education which includes but is not limited to information on the environmental impacts of consumer choices and behaviour and the possible implications, including benefits and costs, of changes in consumption.
THE RIGHT TO HEALTH AND SAFETY
In terms of section 10, consumers have the right to fair value, good quality and safety of goods and services. Suppliers are prohibited from selling or marketing any goods or services to consumers unless these conform to the mandatory safety and quality standards such as the duty to provide goods or services that are safe and free from any defects and hazards. It is for this reason that the Act states that in any transaction or agreement pertaining to the supply of goods and services to a consumer, there is an implied provision that the supplier or producer, warrants that goods or services provided are good quality, safe, free from defects and of fair value.
In the event that the goods supplied fail to satisfy these standards and requirements, the consumer may return the goods to the supplier within six months after the delivery, without penalty and at the supplier’s risk and expense. This means that consumers have a right to return faulty goods such as an electric kettle that stops working without cause, a wobbly coffee table or even a new dress that is poorly stitched. The Act affords the consumer the right to either direct the supplier to repair or replace the failed, unsafe or defective goods or to claim a refund for the purchase price paid. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous service providers charge consumers handling charges when they return defective goods.
THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE
The Consumer Protection Act affords consumers the right to choose goods or services of their preferred choice without any undue influence or pressure from suppliers. This includes the right to select or reject any particular item from selected goods before completion of transaction and the right to return goods after completion of transaction. Where a transaction is completed, a consumer remains with the right to return goods on discovery that such goods are not of their preferred choice within the shortest period reasonable in the circumstances.
THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION
Consumers have the right to disclosure of information on goods or services and disclosure of prices. The Act places an obligation on businesses to provide information which is complete and truthful so that consumers fully understand the terms and conditions of transactions they enter into.
It has become common practice for retailers to display goods without a price tag and often consumers have to ask how much products cost. It is also not uncommon to find wrong prices stuck on products or price markdowns which are not real or price tags which are unclear on products on the shelves but appear at the till.
The Act mandates suppliers to display goods or services with a price, failure of which is a criminal offence. The price displayed must be the price that is charged at the point of sale. If there is more than one price displayed concurrently, the consumer must pay the lowest price that is presented. Further, all goods and services must be labelled in plain and understandable language. This extends to both the formal and informal businesses.
THE RIGHT TO BE HEARD, REPRESENTATION AND REDRESS
Consumers have the right to have their complaints heard before the Consumer Protection Commission or the Courts and further, to seek redress through alternative dispute resolutions provided for in the Consumer Protection Act and any other law. Consumers also have the right to representation by persons of their choice.
THE RIGHT TO FAIR CONTRACTUAL AGREEMENTS
Consumers have the right to fair and honest dealing and protection from unconscionable conduct. The Consumer Protection Act prohibits suppliers and marketers from using physical force, coercion, undue influence, duress, harassment or unfair tactics against consumers in marketing, supply, negotiation or sale of goods or services. Service providers must not take advantage of consumers who are unable to protect their own interests due to mental or physical disability, illiteracy, ignorance or a general inability to understand the terms.
The Act prohibits service providers from displaying any sign that purports to disclaim any liability or deny any right that a consumer has under the Act or any other law. This includes unfair contractual clauses such as “no refund, no returns or no exchanges.”
Suppliers are also prohibited from making false and misleading representations in marketing goods or services. This encompasses the sale of land and any other immovable property.
ENFORCEMENT OF CONSUMER RIGHTS
The Act provides for redress for consumers in the event of disputes or violation of their rights that may be conducted through voluntary arbitrations by consumer protection organisations. In these arbitrations, the Arbitration Act (Chapter 7:15) applies.
Where disputes are not resolved in this manner, the Act empowers consumers to approach the Consumer Protection Commission. Its functions are to promote, enforce and protect consumer rights in the country. Consumers may also approach the courts directly or file an appeal, or apply for review. If businesses or service providers are found guilty of failing to uphold their duties in line with the Consumer Protection Act, the courts or arbitrators may take corrective or punitive measures against them such as fines, imprisonment and payment of damages for any loss suffered by consumers.
CHALLENGES ASSOCIATED WITH CONSUMER RIGHTS PROTECTION
Although the Consumer Protection Act is comprehensive, several challenges hinder its enforcement. Some consumers are not aware of the rights it affords them nor do they know of it. The lack of knowledge of the Act and its protections makes consumers susceptible to unfair business practices.
Business owners in the informal sector together with the customers tend to be ignorant of their duties and obligations as provided for by the Act. This also exposes consumers to being taken advantage of.
There is a need for countrywide consumer education programmes run by the Consumer Protection Commission together with business member organisations. This will increase the level of consumer awareness of rights and recourse outlined in the Consumer Protection Act. Information must be easily accessible and easy to understand in order to cater to consumers with different access needs who may be particularly susceptible to deceptive commercial practices.
Further, monitoring, supervision, and enforcement are key to the success of the Act. Consumer organisations and other civil society organisations play an important role in monitoring outcomes and provide actions following enforcement. There is need to enforce the stricter penalties for those that breach of the Act’s provisions, to act as a deterrent to service providers.
It is more than apparent that the Consumer Protection Act is a comprehensive way to protect Zimbabwean consumers in the current dynamic and complex economic environment. Given the punitive measures and obligations placed on service providers, it is important that businesses align their practices and policies with the Consumer Protection Act. This will ensure that they are not only compliant with the Act, but that they also engage in consistent business practices thereby improving their business operations and relationship with consumers.