NGO's unite to promote consumer protection
Consumer protection is a relatively new phenomenon in the Czech Republic. Under the former Communist regime, the state kept an eye on business practices, norms and standards, and consumers had no choice but to accept what was on offer. Nothing like non-governmental consumer protection organisations or lobby groups existed. After 1989, when free market principles were implemented, the situation changed dramatically in the sense that state supervision diminished. However, it took several years before consumers started to organise themselves to defend their interests and the Czech Republic is still lagging far behind Western Europe in this respect.
Consumer protection is a multi-layered issue, a vast area ranging from data protection in internet transactions to warranty periods, from electrical appliance safety to the monopolist behaviour of some corporations.
Recently, non-governmental organisations that deal with consumer protection held a seminar in the Upper House to discuss the most painful issues and possible ways of joint approach in defending consumer interests. I spoke to Karel Pavlik the deputy chairman of the Association of Czech Consumer Organisations, and Ondrej Velek, the coordinator of the programme called Right to Know, and the host of the meeting of consumer NGOs.
K.P. "A lot of consumer-related issues are connected with the EU and during the pre-accession period, the Czech Republic implemented a number of European directives that improved the position and the rights of Czech consumers. Unfortunately, knowledge of these rights among consumers is still quite low. Consumers do not know what rights they have and how to enforce them. This is a big problem. I can mention some major issues. One of them is the telecommunications sector and access to the internet. The fees for connection to the internet are quite high in the Czech Republic and other possibilities to connect besides dial-up are at the very beginning, like ADSL which has been introduced only this year, which was very late compared to other European countries. Also, the price of normal phone calls is quite high. There is some new legislation which should be implemented to improve the situation and create a greater pressure on [the dominant] Czech Telecom to lower the prices, as well as to improve the position of alternative operators on the market."
Mentioning the internet, on your website, consumers can ask directly about various issued. What are the most typical questions or complaints?
K.P. "The main problems remain with shoes, their quality and returning faulty products during the warranty period. This take up 15 or 20 percent of all consumer problems. There are other issues as well, mostly related to electronics, textile, lately it is mobile phones..."
Is the problem in the quality of goods or in the retailer-customer relationship?
K.P. "It's both."
O.V. "At the beginning, we had a system where people were protected by the state authority and now we are more and more privatised and open, the government is weaker and weaker in many respects. So, we are here to balance public interest, which is sometimes very painful. I can give an example of wild and far-reaching privatisation of water distribution in some towns where consumers subsequently became hostages of such systems where prices were not administratively regulated. Another example is the telecom and internet access. As the third example, I would mention the insufficient competition in the banking sector. The state caused a collapse of some credit unions which had started to appear in the mid-1990's. Now, banks are in a monopoly position. Many consumers got in trouble because of the collapse of the credit union system and small banks. It happened due to weak legislation and in part due to not very rational privatisation of the system we had before."
What can you do for consumers in such cases? Is it through lobbying in the political circles to push for changes in legislation?
"Good question. It is different for different areas. As far as I know, the issue of natural monopolies, such as the drinking water networks, there are local solutions and pressure from the public. For example, in the town of Pilsen, the water company there was taken to court to lower the price of water because the contract between the town and the private company was a long-term one and could not be terminated, so it is necessary to regulate the price and put the company under public pressure. There was some success achieved, and it is a precedent for other towns not to follow this model of wild privatisation. In the banking sector, some lawsuits have been filed against the Czech state which is partly responsible for this collapse, there are other alternative solutions still open for small banks to become competitors for the large banks that waste money or charge very high fees. As for the internet, the main initiative is to exert pressure on the Ministry of Information Technology to create a competitive environment and to allow other providers to enter the market."
You said people are not very well informed about their rights. What is your Association of Czech Consumer Organisations doing to change it, to spread information among consumers?
K.P. "We are trying to inform them in many ways. The main information channel is the internet. On our website www.consumer.cz, we publish daily updated information in Czech, there is also information in other languages for foreigners visiting the Czech Republic, what they should know before coming. We use other means, too, such as publications, leaflets, we work with the press, we try to use all these means to improve the situation. We also have a project aimed at consumer education at schools because students are quite open to new information if it is provided in a suitable way."