Local Concerns: Consumer Protection
This is a crucial moment for Thailand's consumer protection movement.
Agroup of activists pedal to the Royal Plaza lastWednesday as part of the ‘‘Consumer Justice Now’’ campaign, calling for parliament to pass a law that will put in place an independent body on consumerprotection. This morning, the activists will take part in a bike parade to parliament to urge lawmakers to speed up the final reading of the bill. APICHART JINAKUL
The establishment of an independent consumer protection agency, as stipulated by Section 61 of the constitution, has finally inched toward becoming a reality. A draft bill to set up the agency is now pending a final reading by the House and the Senate, who have already scrutinised the proposal earlier this year.
This morning, a network of consumer protection activists will kickstart a campaign titled "Consumer Justice Now" to sway lawmakers to prioritise passing the bill into law. The network vows to rally in front of parliament every Wednesday until the draft bill is slotted for the final reading.
It has indeed been a long affair, and contentious issues such as the amount of power to be handed to the agency has stoked fears that it could be even longer.
The bill is a product of the relentless efforts of a network of consumers and civil society groups.
To push for the independent consumer agency, the network applied bottom-up tactics, taking advantage of a constitutional right allowing citizens to propose bills to parliament if at least 10,000 eligible voters submit a petition to the president of the National Assembly. The network collected 12,000 names to sponsor the bill.
"This is not an 'NGO law'. It's a people's law," Saree Aongsomwang, secretary-general of the Foundation for Consumers, said during a recent forum on the draft bill.
The idea of having this type of independent body for consumer protection was conceived in Section 57 of the 1997 Constitution _ the so-called people's constitution. But the issue was ignored by lawmakers and efforts to push for this draft bill did not go anywhere.
In the absence of the independent consumer protection body, the Foundation for Consumers, which operates Chalard Sue "Smart Buyer" magazine", has been at the forefront of consumer protection, braving lawsuits by many businesses it has exposed. Now, finally, consumers may get the agency they deserve.
Once the bill comes into effect the law will put in place a 15-member commission. Seven commissioners will represent seven different fields of expertise _ finance and banking; public service; housing; healthcare; merchandise and services; telecommunications; and food, drugs and health supplement products. The remaining commissioners will be divided up among the country's regions. Each will be required to have at least three years of experience in consumer protection work.
The commissioners will be screened and elected by a committee comprising representatives from a group of leading NGOs and non-profit organisations, including the Lawyers Council of Thailand and the Community Organisations Development Institute.
Some lawmakers are reluctant to pass the draft, fearing it gives the agency too much power. Apart from overseeing consumer protection policy, the bill authorises the independent body to look into consumers' complaints and carry out inquiries while making public the names of the companies under investigation. After the inquiry, it can submit cases to the Office of the Attorney-General to pursue legal action in court.
Other sensitive elements that give lawmakers pause include the commission's annual budget _ a minimum of three baht per capita, or approximately 190 million baht.
While there are concerns this agency's role will overlap with the Consumer Protection Board, the two are different.
The board is a government agency under the PM's Office which, given its state agency status, faces curbs in pursuing consumer cases that involve state organisations. The board cannot file complaints against an increase in tollway fees or cooking gas prices, for example. The new consumer agency law will empower the consumer commission to do this, with cases against state agencies to be submitted to the Administrative Court.
The advantage of the pending bill is it is designed to close loopholes in consumer protection, especially overlaps between different state agencies which make it difficult for consumers to approach the right agency.
Ms Saree said the most important aspect of the bill is that it empowers consumers by ensuring their right to information so they can make good decisions.
"However, contentious issues like the amount of power handed to the commission may make it difficult for the bill to sail through parliament. Some politicians will oppose it in the final reading," she said.
If the Senate rejects the bill, the Lower House can still pick it up and reconsider the proposal within 180 days. But if the bill fails in the Lower House, activists will have go back to square one and draft a new bill.
Sixteen years since this bill was first proposed in accordance with the 1997 Constitution, the ball is finally in the lawmakers' court. It will require political will to make the right decision, and end the long wait for consumer protection.
Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
Position: Deputy Editorial Pages Editor