Consumer Protection Law
Barrister Tureen Afroz
The concept of protecting consumer rights is not a new one. Since the dawn of human civilization, the ordinary members of every society have been consciously trying to protect their rights as consumers, though its scope might have only been limited to prevent unusual price hikes of essential items of the daily life. With the advent of the 20th century, the issue of consumer rights protection gained importance in various developed countries of the world. The Western countries played a pioneer role in creating the awareness and in enacting various kinds of consumer protection laws. Moreover, since 1962, on March 15 every year, the world has been observing the World Consumer Rights Day.
The rights of consumers got the formal international recognition when in 1985 the United Nations (UN) promulgated the basic guidelines regarding consumer rights protection. The UN guidelines essentially postulate that all citizens, regardless of their incomes or social standing, have basic rights as consumers. By the end of the 20th century, the issue of consumer rights protection became almost a movement all over the world.
It is unfortunate to note that even after so many years of progress in worldwide consumer rights movement, the rights of consumers in Bangladesh depicts a disappointing picture to the world. The social position of the consumers in Bangladesh is very much vulnerable here. Bangladeshi consumers are deprived of their rights at every sphere of life. Bangladesh does not still have any specific umbrella organisation or institution exclusively designated to comprehensively safeguard and promote consumer rights within the country. Moreover, the current legal protection to the consumers in Bangladesh is inadequate and outdated. The country is yet to enact a comprehensive Consumer Protection Act.
Aspects of consumer protection
There are three aspects of consumer rights protection, which every country must consider.
First, the aspect of 'voluntary protection' which means that consumers themselves would voluntarily set up associations and/or organisations to safeguard their own rights and interests. These associations/orgnaisations generally work as pressure groups on the government for consumer rights issues. There are many such voluntary organisations in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other countries of the world. In Bangladesh, the Consumers' Association of Bangladesh (CAB) was established in 1978.
Second, the aspect of 'institutional protection'. By establishing national institutions to safeguard and promote consumer rights of citizens this aspect of consumers' protection can be ensured. For example, in 1914 the Federal Trade Commission, in 1927 the Food and Drug Administration and in 1970 the National High Traffic Administration were set up in the USA; the United Kingdom established the office of Director-General of Fair Trading; Sweden set up the Consumer Agency KOV and Consumer Ombudsman KO; India established National Consumer Protection Council, various State Consumer Protection Councils, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission with State Commissions and District Forums; Pakistan set up the Islamabad Consumer Protection Council; Sri Lanka and Nepal set up the office of the Commissioner of Internal Trade and the Consumer Protection Council respectively.
In Bangladesh Standard and Testing Institute has been active in protecting consumers of Bangladesh in a limited capacity by way of doing laboratory research and testing of commodities to find out whether the same comply with the expected standard. However, currently the country does not have any specific organisation or institution exclusively designated to comprehensively safeguard and promote consumer rights.
Third, the aspect of 'statutory protection', which can be guaranteed by enacting relevant laws for protecting the rights and interests of the consumers. Many countries of the world, including those in Asia, have already enacted comprehensive laws in this regard. For example, the Consumer Protection Fundamental Act 1968 in Japan, Consumer Protection Act 1979 in both Thailand and Sri Lanka, Consumer Protection Act 1986 in India, Consumer Act of the Philippines 1990 in the Phillippines, Islamabad Consumers Protection Act 1995 in Pakistan, Consumer Protection Act 1998 in Nepal, The Law on Consumer Protection 1999 in Indonesia and Consumer Protection Act 1999 in Malaysia were enacted. However, Bangladesh is yet to enact such a comprehensive Consumers Protection Act.
Current status of legal protection to consumers in Bangladesh
It has already been mentioned that the current system of legal protection to the consumers in Bangladesh is inadequate and outdated. Further whatever little laws are available, they are not strictly enforced for the protection of the rights of the general consumers. The consumers in Bangladesh are thus deprived of their rights at every sphere of their lives.
The Constitution of Bangladesh, under its 'fundamental principles of state policy' part, recognises the rights of consumers to a limited extent. The provisions of consumer protection can be found at Articles 15 and 18 of the Constitution. However, these provisions are mainly focussed on the vital issues of 'health' and 'food' than on other consumer rights. Moreover, the said provisions are mentioned under the 'fundamental principles of state policy' part and not under the 'fundamental rights' part of the Constitution. Hence, they remain mostly non-enforceable in the courts of law.
Apart from the said Constitutional provisions, Bangladesh also has a few specific consumer protection legislations. However, Rahman argues that such specific legislations are 'scanty,' 'scattered over a whole range of enactments' and are 'only indirectly related to the protection of consumer interests' [Mizanur Rahman, 'Consumer Protection in Bangladesh: Law and Practice' (1994) 17(3) Journal of Consumer Policy 349]. Some of such specific legislations include the Control of Essential Commodities Act 1957, the Pure Food Ordinance 1956, the Price and Distribution of Essential Commodities Ordinance 1970, the Bangladesh Drugs Control Ordinance 1982, the Breast-Milk Substitute (Regulation of Marketing) Ordinance 1984, the Tobacco Goods Marketing (Control) Act 1988, the Pure Food (Amendment) Act 2005 etc.
Further, there are certain legislations, part of which has got direct bearings on consumer protection. For example, sections 264-267, 272-276, 478-483 of the Bangladesh Penal Code 1860, the Poison Act 1919, the Dangerous Drug Act 1930, the Trade Mark Act 1940, the Animals Slaughter (Restriction) and Meat Act 1957, the Special Powers Act 1974, the Standards of Weights and Measures Ordinance 1982, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute Ordinance 1985, the Narcotics (Control) Act 1990, and the Safe Blood Transfusion Act 2002, etc.
Ahmed and Rahman comments that the current regime of legislative protection to the consumers in Bangladesh is 'so outdated that little or no protection is provided to the consumers' [Borhan Ahmed and Khalilur Rahman, 'Consumer Rights: Bangladesh Perspective' CAB publication]. They further criticize the current legal regime for consumer protection on the following grounds:
(a) The current laws are faulty and do not meet the present needs;
(b) Under the existing legal regime, the aggrieved consumers themselves cannot go to the court to sue against the violators. It is only the designated government officials empowered under these laws, who can initiate and sue against the violators.
(c) The provisions of penalty or punishment under the current laws are so negligible that nobody cares to abide by such laws; and
(d) Finally, the laws are not effectively enforced.
Afroz too claims that, under the current legal regime, the general consumers in Bangladesh cannot take proper legal action against the fraudulent and unfair trade practices of the unscrupulous businessmen and traders [Tureen Afroz, 'Protecting the Rights of the Consumers in Bangladesh' (17 March 2002) The Daily Star]. She further states that the current statutory protections to the consumers in Bangladesh are not comprehensive and thus, fail to meet the contemporary requirements of the consumers.
The second part of the article will be published in the next issue.
The author is an Assistant Professor at BRAC University School of Law and Executive Director of LawDev. This article is based upon her keynote paper presented at the 'Workshop on Bangladesh Consumers Right Protection Law' jointly organized by EU, BQSP, UNIDO, CAB, BSTI and the Ministry of Industries.