The Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) during the lockdown received about 100 calls from consumers complaining about the price hike, denial of sales or services, sale of expired products, inappropriate product labelling and underweight products, among others.
After the first positive case of Covid-19 in the country, OCP nominated market-monitoring team in all the dzongkhags. The team was given virtual training on consumer responsibilities. OCP also developed Standard Operation Procedures and guidelines.
OCP’s director, Sonam Tenzin, said, “The OCP’s market-monitoring team in collaboration with relevant agencies carries out surveillance on the presence of underweight and expiry products, bulk purchase and hoarding by consumers, and other unfair trade practices.”
OCP ensured the protection of the economy and health safety of individuals, he said.
The pandemic has affected many; some are living on their savings or daily wages. If these people are served with expired products or if they are given underweight products, then their hard-earned money is not equated with the products they bought, he says.
“At the national level, the free medical facilities in the country are pressurised. The productivity of consumers are affected and they will not be able to contribute to the growth of the economy,” he said.
Kezang Wangmo, 24, a corporate employee, said that after drinking packaged milk she suffered from diarrhoea. Some home delivery services delivered rotten chicken, she added.
Also, social media was flooded with aggrieved customers receiving underweight items or the hiked prices of commodities during the lockdown.
Chief programme officer of OCP, Jigme Dorji, said that advertisement to lure customers through false information was a form of deceptive trade practice.
He said that all consumers are considered vulnerable. “Consumers are considered vulnerable because, in unprecedented times like this, the trade activities are increasing. Businesses are trying to exploit the consumers so there is a need for consumer protection.”
Moreover, the growth of the digital economy created a digital divide and the vulnerability of consumers was further widened, he said.
Jigme Dorji said that when a complaint is received, the consumer is asked to produce receipts.
“First, we see the nature of the complaint. If it is related to expiry products, leveraging on agencies like Bhutan Agriculture and Food Authority or Drug Regulatory Authority the products are disposed of,” he said.
During the lockdown, if the complaint was on price escalation, the price of the product was compared to the Market Price Information (MPI)—the prevailing price in the market—on essential goods, he said.
Issues which are not resolved after mediation between the consumer and business entity are taken up to the management committee. If the issue is not resolved then the dispute settlement committee intervenes.
OCP created animations and infographics to advocate on consumers’ rights and duties. Business entities were advised on after-sales services such as guarantee and warranty. Guidelines for saloon services and other services were developed by OCP to ensure consumer protection.
OCP’s objective was to educate consumers and make them smart consumers, Sonam Tenzin said. “If we have smart consumers then shopkeepers will not conduct unfair trade practices. Currently, shopkeepers drive the market, we have to change the dynamic and the change can be achieved only if we empower the consumers.”
To ensure one is safe from unfair trade practices performed by the business entities, consumers must be aware of their consumer rights and responsibilities, Jigme Dorji said. “Be informed of the trade practices in the market. Check if products sold in the market are genuine and compare prices in the market with the MPI.”
Sonam Tenzin said: “In unusual times like this business entities should not take advantage of the situation but conduct ethical business as a form of public service.”
OCP was established in 2014 as per the Consumer Protection Act 2012.