Looking back on the consumers’ association Consumer Concerns
By Eileen Cox
Stabroek News
April 6, 2003

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Thirty-two years ago the Guyana Consumers Associa-tion (GCA) introduced the word “consumer” into the vocabulary of the citizens of Guyana. It is time to look back and assess the achievements.

The impact was great. The government of the time acknowledged the need for a consumers’ association and set up a Ministry for Trade and Consumer Protection. Consumer protection was on the front burner. Soon members of the association were selected for appointment to boards, including the Guyana National Science Research Council (GNRC).

The GCA clamoured for a Bureau of Standards to follow in the footsteps of Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica. A committee was appointed under the GNRC and after years of hemming and hawing, with visits from numerous quality control experts, the Guyana National Bureau of Standards was established.

Radio Demerara recognised the need for consumer education and invited the GCA to submit two recordings a week for the programme, Consumers’ Corner. At Rickey Singh’s request a weekly column was prepared for the Sunday Graphic. The consumers of Guyana acquired gumption and began to exercise their rights.

It may be that GCA’s influence was too great, for soon the government changed the name of its ministry removing the words “Consumer Protection” but leaving a consumer division hidden away in the Ministry of Trade. Today it is still hidden from the view of consumers in the Ministry of Tourism, Industry and Commerce.

The broadcasts continue, the column continues, but consumers themselves do not see the influence that the association has had in ensuring some small measure of protection for them in their daily lives.

The reluctance of governments to fully protect consumers and raise their standard of living cannot be understood. Government after government failed to accept GCA’s recommendations for relieving poverty. The one recommendation that was accepted related to the married woman’s right to file income tax papers separately from her husband. A Small Claims Tribunal, a Consumer Protection Act are not yet on our statute book.

Two chairmen of the Public Utilities Commission attempted to give consumers a fair deal and were removed from office. The chairman of Guyana Telephone & Tele-graph Company (GT&T) at a public function expressed satisfaction with the third appointment. The Court of Appeal permitted GT&T to retain a very substantial sum of money which they had collected from consumers without the consent of the Public Utilities Commission. No one verified the amount claimed by GT&T. Consumers cannot appeal and no one cares.

For more than 10 years the GCA has been bringing to the attention of the Ministry of Finance the need to review the Dependants Pension Fund. Can you believe that governments have refused to consider the plight of widows and orphans of government employees, under the Dependants Pension Fund, who are in receipt of pensions ranging from $20 per month to something like $5000 per month? Again and again we have asked for review and the plea is consistently ignored.

The proposal the GCA has now made is that the fund be closed and the pension scheme handed over to the National Insurance Scheme (NIS). The mortgage section, which eats up the money, should be handed over to the New Building Society. Two years ago we put this proposal to the Minister of Finance. Nothing has happened.

Again, there is a rule in the NIS that no pensioner should receive two pensions. Because of this, if a husband and wife are both receiving NIS pension and one of them dies, the survivor cannot receive a Survivors Pension. The rule, we admit, should cover a person who makes only one contribution and therefore cannot claim an Invalidity Pension, say, and an Old Age Pension. Where two consumers have contributed to the NIS two pensions should be paid.

In this month of April 2003, with prices rising in all areas, pensioners are visiting the post offices seeking their April pension and are greatly inconvenienced when told that no money has been sent to the General Post Office for pension distribution. The sum of $50 million is needed at the GPO for old age pensioners but has not yet been transferred. Does anyone in authority give a second thought to the suffering of the poor?

In spite of these setbacks, the influence of the GCA is still there as evidenced by the support the GCA receives from consumers in all parts of Guyana and by the fact that the Prime Minister has appealed to the GCA to help to change the culture in Guyana. Yes, the culture can be changed but there needs to be a widespread change at all levels of the society. That is the only way forward.

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