Beware! Retail therapy can make you sick
|This sign saying returns not accepted is illegal|
The contaminated New Zealand milk products scare highlighted the need for robust consumer protection. How does Indonesia fare? The Sunday Post investigates:
Even hardened community activists agree: Indonesia has fine consumer protection laws, as good as any found overseas.
Yet few shoppers know they’re shielded. Rights are whispered when they should be shouted. Adequate laws are policed inadequately.
Although governments try to guard consumers’ wallets and health, administrators’ efforts are hit-and-miss, and resources limited.
They are failing to explain how the system works, particularly to the most vulnerable - those with limited education and low incomes.
While supermarkets used by the middle classes get food safety spot checks, traditional unrefrigerated markets sell meat and fish in the open, threatening public health.
In short, Indonesian consumers are still babes in the market jungle, easily savaged by sharp-fanged vendors unburdened by ethics. The present system of checks and balances has passed its use-by date.
Despite a brief push in Malang to clear shelves of stale and contaminated food during Ramadhan, law enforcers face an uphill task to lift shopper security to international levels.
It’s not just the government’s fault – buyers are also failing to flex their legal muscle and keep traders honest.
“Why don’t they? That’s a really easy question, and there’s a really difficult answer,” said veteran consumer advocate Indah Suksmaningsih, former chair of the Indonesian Consumers’ Foundation (YLKI) and now chair of the Southeast Asian Consumer Council.
“People are so brave to speak up in a group, but not as individuals.
“We are also very forgiving and tend to forget. Things are getting better for consumers largely because of competition among retailers and the rising middle-class becoming more discriminating.
“However the big issue isn’t whether people are getting value for money, but whether people are being valued, and their rights to basic needs are being met.”
If awareness is measured by the number of grievances, then Indonesia is staggering and far behind its neighbors. YLKI’s counterpart in Kuala Lumpur reportedly gets 40 times more calls and letters.
However this masks the fact that the Malaysian office just receives complaints while the Foundation takes action, according to Indah.
“When we raised the specific issue of electricity services we got 2,000 complaints in a month,” she said.
“Indonesians get very angry if we just talk about problems and do nothing. We’re here to help but we’re not complainers’ servants. This is not a way for people to get a lot of money out of a company.”
So how do consumers get their gripes taken seriously? With great difficulty – and that includes negotiating thickets of acronyms to determine who does what and where.
The government publishes a handful of posters and brochures but these are not widely available, according to Soemito, head of the Malang Consumers’ Foundation (YLKM)
“I’ve lectured on the law at universities and departments, including the police,” said the former Jakarta tour guide who gave up his business to arouse and inform consumers.
“This job should be done by the government, and that includes classes in schools. The authorities talk a lot, but it’s NATO (no action, talk only).
“Frankly speaking they are not committed.”
Heading to the mall? Caveat emptor
At first glance Indonesia’s electronic superstores look just like those overseas. Seductive rows of white washers, icy fridges and shimmering widescreen TVs.
All the big international brands are there to comfort quality-conscious consumers. Uniformed sales people and neon-saturated showrooms complete the picture, apart from one striking addition: A test bench, bristling with power sockets.
Hawk-eyed customers watch while staff struggle with tightly-fitted Styrofoam moulds and shrink-wrapped plastic so the device can be checked.
Do the LED lights glow, the screen flicker and the blades turn? OK, it’s a deal.
It’s also a clear statement of distrust. Caveat emptor, as the lawyers say. Let the buyer beware.
In nations where strong consumer protection laws are enforced shoppers take their goods still factory-sealed. If they malfunction, retailers refund or exchange to keep customers happy – and stay the right side of the law.
“We have good consumer laws in Indonesia, and they’ve been in existence since 1999,” said Tulus Abadi, spokesman for the Indonesian Consumers’ Foundation (YLKI)
“However consumers aren’t well informed about their rights and how to get redress. The law isn’t being implemented well.”
The foundation is a 40-year old Jakarta-based non-government association with 22 staff. It’s funded by donations (including from the Jakarta Governor) to ‘raise critical awareness’ of consumers’ rights and responsibilities.
It produces the magazine Konsumen edited by Tulus free of advertisements apart from community service promotions, like the World Health Organization’s pleas to ban tobacco sponsorship. It publishes reports of product tests and dangerous goods alerts, along with news about law changes.
A non-scientific survey by The Sunday Post of academic staff at a Malang tertiary institution showed most were unaware of consumer protection laws. However all said they had returned goods at some time and been satisfied.
Ironically the well-signed office of YLKM, a local non-government consumers’ advocacy, is just opposite the campus back gate where it has been for 13 years.
YLKM director Soemito and his volunteer colleagues get up to 20 calls a day because their number is just inside the yellow pages phone directory (under the rubric ‘YLKM’ though there’s no indicator of the meaning).
However only five per cent follow through with formal complaints.
Consumers’ main concerns are with electricity supplier PLN, the banks and financial services. Soemito said borrowers often failed to read the small print – or if they did the meaning wasn’t clear.
Imposts, like charges for early loan repayments, riled customers. “There’s little point in approaching lawyers,” he said. “Few understand the law or have bothered to read it.”
Under the 1999 Consumers’ Rights legislation every district (there are more than 430) should have a consumer’s dispute resolution center (BPSK). So far almost 170 have been established across the archipelago.
Where strong consumer laws operate retailers exercise caution when buying from wholesalers. Handling dud goods is costly and damages reputation.
That’s not a concern where market kiosks sell cheap goods cheaply. In the crowded caverns where bargain hunters stalk and scammers lurk the dangers of being ripped off are greatest.
These are also the places where NO RETURN signs thrive, though the photos in this story were shot in mainstreet stores. Tulus said such notices are against the law. So is the practise of marking up goods, then discounting the higher price in a supposed sale.
Another trick seen in an electronic goods store is labelling with two tags. Buyers who pay the low sum have to take faulty goods back to the agent for repairs or exchange.
Postage to a distant factory may not be worth the cost and hassle. For a premium the shop will handle returns.
Black goods are also a problem, though easily spotted. Panasanic radios and Tashiba TVs are obvious frauds, but careless buyers can be blinded to the difference by low price tags.
Shops changing use-by-dates, particularly on imported goods, is another unscrupulous dealers’ tactic. Any tampering with the date stamp should alert shoppers to be cautious.
“Despite these and other problems the bigger nation-wide stores are starting to comply with the law,” said Tulus. “It’s a slow process that could be accelerated by buyers avoiding shops that sell low quality goods – and demanding their rights when things go wrong.”
Another reason for few complaints may be the well-publicised treatment given to Tangerang housewife Prita Mulyasari, jailed in 2009 for defamation after criticising a medical service.
The YLKI says complainants should first approach the store manager. Be clear about the problem and keep receipts and packaging. If no action, send a letter saying if unresolved within seven days the matter will be referred to the YLKI.
If that doesn’t work the next step is the BPSK dispute resolution center. The one in Malang handled just 34 complaints last year (27 so far this year) and claims a 90 per cent success rate.
In January the Trade Ministry set up a national on-line system for disgruntled consumers (http://siswaspk.kemendag.go.id/) In July 60 complaints were recorded and apparently resolved. Its website logo has a bespectacled kangaroo urging citizens to be ‘thorough before buying’. Calls to the Jakarta office to check figures went unanswered.
Tulus said YLKI welcomed the initiative though he said it was still early days to judge its effectiveness.
Head offices of the three major national retailers were contacted by phone and e-mail for their policies on consumers’ rights, PT Matahari which runs a department store of the same name and the Hypermart supermarkets did not reply.
Neither did the PT Hero Group that has supermarkets Hero and Giant. However individual store managers confirmed refunds and exchanges were available if customers returned goods within a few days. There were no notices seen advertising this policy.
The supermarket PT Carrefour also failed to reply but does display large signs near checkouts claiming ‘100 per cent refunds’ for intact goods, excluding underwear, returned with invoice within seven days.
The Indonesian Retail Merchants’ Association (APRINDO) was invited to comment on its advice to members regarding consumers’ rights but did not respond.
The burning of the beef
It looked like another staged media stunt when a government hit squad forced the branch of a major national supermarket to torch more than 20 kilos of prime meat contaminated with maggots while The Sunday Post was present.
Two search and destroy teams, each of seven public servants from public order, health, pharmacy and agriculture were led by Yenny Mariati of Malang’s Consumer Protection Department.
Staff were mustered in a car park. They were given secret instructions and the list of targets only when ready to roll. The exercise appeared genuine.
“This is routine before Idul Fitri and Christmas,” said Yenny. “We make random checks and shops aren’t alerted.”
Yet a few streets away beef of questionable ancestry was being chopped on a roadside block and fish gutted on the floor of a market where the poor shop. Ms Hygiene was noticeably absent.
“We’d like to do more, but I have only five staff,” said Yenny.
“Not good enough,” countered Ary Widy Hartuno, a volunteer with consumer advocacy group YLKM who watched the cremation with a ho-hum air. “This sort of action should be happening all the time.
“We get complaints and forward them, but not all are pursued by officials They need to be tougher, proactive and confiscate more. Of course they should have extra staff.
“At the same time we must be aware of bad buyers trying to cheat shops. We’ve had examples of people seeking to return goods like laptops that have been altered or parts taken.”
|Consumer watchdogs Ary Widy Hartuno (left) and Soemito|
Ary, a public servant in an unrelated department, said he fought a protracted battle with PLN (the State electricity supplier) overcharging for power installation and tardy services.
He eventually won and got compensation, but the experience was so tortuous he decided to campaign for consumers’ rights, joining YLKM to prod bureaucrats into effective refereeing.
“PLN is a monopoly and government owned,” he said. “That makes many officials think they don’t have to treat their customers properly. That’s clearly wrong.”
Earlier the khaki –clad inspectors had swooped on a suburban mini-mart and seized jams, biscuits, jellies, flour and baby food. Two plainclothes policemen were present in case of trouble, but startled shop owner I Wayan Sudirya offered no resistance.
|Shop owner I Wayan Sudirya (white T shirt) is forced to destroy goods as public service inspectors watch|
“I’m not angry – they’re just doing their duty,” he said as the bureaucrats made him empty jars and rip up packets, then sign a document confirming the destruction.
“Suppliers have been dumping old stock, and I’ll take this up with them. I don’t have enough staff to check every item.”
Titik Mujiati of Malang BPSK, who has been ransacking shelves for five years so customers aren’t put at risk, said offences committed included incorrect or no labelling, and out-of-date merchandise.
She said her forays tended to net the same quantity and type of foods every time – indicating that some retailers reckon the chances of getting caught are slim so taking risks worthwhile.
“Perhaps I’ve been a little bit stupid,” said Wayan, a grocer for 23 years. “I must be more careful in the future.”
The law says shoppers have rights to:
- Convenience, safety and security.
- Quality goods and services with warranties.
- Clear, correct and factual information.
- Consumer education.
- Be treated equally and truthfully.
- Compensation or replacement if goods don’t match description or fail.
First published in The Sunday Post 18 August 2013
The YLKI website is www.ylki.or.id