Published On: Mon, Jul 26th, 2021

Consumer protection remains elusive, in spite of existing laws

PHILIPSBURG — Curacao established its consumer foundation almost half a century ago, in 1975. The Fundashon pa Konsumidó provides information about price comparison and the quality of products and services and it also helps consumers access their rights. In St. Maarten the Windward Island Consumer Foundation of President Virgilio Brooks is dormant and an attempt by former Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs Ingrid Arrindell to do something about this is gathering dust.

Fast changing market should have given consumer protection the attention it deserves, but politicians seem to spend all their energy on bickering about the airport reconstruction project, the Dutch conditions for liquidity support and the rather pointless debate about decolonization.

In the meantime, consumers increasingly use online channels for purchases. Websites, web shops and buy-sell-trade pages on Facebook are rapidly gaining popularity. That’s all fine and dandy and above all convenient until there is a problem with a product. That’s when the arguments between buyers and sellers begin – and consumers mostly end up on the wrong side of the deal.

This development underlines the need for a modern form of consumer protection that takes this trend into account. St. Maarten is not there yet, not by a long shot.

On January 10, 2017, Minister Arrindell sent two draft ordinances for advice to the Social Economic Council (SER): the consumer ordinance and the competition ordinance. Already on February 9, the SER issued its letter of advice, addressed to Arrindell’s successor Rafael Boasman and to Prime Minister William Marlin.

According to this advice, the competition ordinance was to establish a competition authority “that will also enforce rights concerning consumer protection under the consumer ordinance.”

The SER was not convinced: “Studies should be carried out whether a Consumer Authority is necessary,” chairlady Oldine Bryson-Pantophlet wrote. “A Consumer authority adds little value to the current consumer protection framework.”

The SER advised “to establish an entity that protects consumers.” It found yet another deficiency in the draft where it stated that the Consumer Authority and its attached legislation would supersede all other national laws. “That is not correct because one national ordinance cannot supersede another.”

Lastly, the SER balked at the projected costs: the draft ordinance mentions a budget of 1.6 million guilders (close to $894,000) for a fully operational Competition Authority by the end of 2019. “This amount is significant considering that laws that protect consumers are already in place and should be enforced.”

That final remark triggers questions like, why is a consumer protection entity necessary, who is responsible for enforcing those existing laws and who is going to inform consumers about their rights.