Towards a more just society

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MIKE WOOTTON

MIKE WOOTTON

It would take a lot more than the 800 or so words allowed here to do full justice to the title! However, let’s have a go, one bite at a time.

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Many services in the Philippines are by deliberate design under neo-liberal economic principles, provided by the private sector. Consumer products are, of course, also provided by the private sector. At a guess, about 80 percent of household expenditure will be paid either directly or eventually to the Philippines private sector—much of which is “big business.”

In a just society in which big business has been consciously allowed, gifted, or sold various franchises by government, the position of the consumers would be protected. In the case of utilities, for example water and electricity and even telecommunications, the service provider has a captive market. In the Philippines, consumer abuse by the service provider/franchisee in a captive market is subject to regulatory control by a state regulatory body. Such control as these bodies exercise is through the painstaking examination of vast amounts of paperwork containing really excruciating detail—so much so that it is easy to treat the main objective of the regulatory review as being less important than strict adherence to the filing requirements. Many consumers will no doubt feel that the regulators for water and electricity could do a much better job; the costs of these services are far too high and service provision is no better than average. As for consumer protection in the telecommunications sector, let’s just say there is a long way to go.

Over there in Europe, some of the downsides of the neo-liberal gifting-of-profit-to-the-private-sector-at the-expense-of-everybody-else have been addressed under the banner of citizens or consumers rights. Indeed, a subset of human rights, but less controversial in this writing! A few examples:

A power utility [gas or electricity]cannot disconnect the service for non-payment during cold weather or where there are vulnerable people in the household.

If there is a power cut, the consumer is entitled to a compensation payment

Consumers in difficult financial circumstances will be allowed a payment-over-time plan without any disconnection

There are relatively few disconnections in the UK, about 16,000 a year [out of about 15-20 million connections]. It is difficult for the service provider to disconnect as they would need a warrant granted by a court to enter the house to make the disconnection. The warrant could not be granted without a hearing, which the consumer is able to attend.

In this neck of the woods, if people are late to pay they just find that they have no power or no water or internet or telephone line. Being late is getting increasingly sooner, PLDT will start requesting payment and huffing and puffing several days before the due date.

The bottom line here is that despite there being regulatory bodies, their focus tends to be at least in my experience, on process conformance all in a business environment in which the franchise holders are often so big, powerful and well connected. Consumers—the people who pay—have zero ability to address the service providers and even if they had, they would find scant support from government.

In a more just society it would be a condition of the franchise that the service providers dealt reasonably with their customers and that government would enforce fair dealing between the consumers and suppliers. The power regulator Ofgem in the UK has a comprehensive internet site explaining the conditions of the relationship between supplier and consumer https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/consumers/energy-guides. Ofgem has an annual budget of the equivalent of about P3 billion—money well spent it seems.

If people want change, it seems to be that high on the list of the sort of change that they want would be better protection from government against the rapaciousness of the local monopolistic private sector. And again this points to the perennial problem of red tape and paperwork —consumer complaints cannot function where the “requirements” for submitting a complaint are difficult to achieve. Imagine the view of the monopolists if they were forced to get a court warrant each time they wanted to do a disconnection! But that is how it should be if we want a just society.

Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com

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