Marijana Loncar-Velkova, Consumers’ Organization of Macedonia: More for bills, less for food and rights
If price rises continue, it will affect the quality of life. This can lead to reduced quality of services, and it will increase the violation of consumers’ rights, says Marijana Loncar-Velkova, president of Consumers’ Organizations of Macedonia (COM) in an interview for Inbox7
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How does COM see the latest price rise?
Loncar-Velkova: We are also met by the last price rice. We see how citizens react. However, we monitor the reactions of citizens in particular. It is hard because much of the family budget outflows for certain costs, such as energy. They also react to the rising cost of strategic products that we daily use in the diet, and other products because of the price rise of gas, electricity. With this, consumers are exposed in the structure of consumption not to be able to spend more money on some other needs that would improve the quality of life. Sure, here it is significant first to provide priority costs and then other. However, there will be less for food, trips, for school and children and other needs such as vacations, buying papers, technical goods which will make business sector suffer if price rises continue. Many people react that now it is difficult because there are telecommunication services, too. Earlier, fifteen, twenty years ago we did not have such expenditures on telecommunications services except a landline phone and a cell phone eventually. Power consumption has also grown. We get heated with another fuel. Now it is just electricity, except in Skopje where there is thermal energy, other towns mostly use wood. Now here is the problem of how to find other ways to help. Whether with bigger competition in the market which will reduce prices. This is especially evident in the telecommunications sector. Tomorrow when we will have the opportunity to buy power in the market it may cut prices. And the third area is the thermal energy, how to get to the consumer better, that is to provide better conditions for the consumer to be motivated to join the heating system. In order to reduce at least part of these costs. Certainly these are large sums plaguing us all. We have had cases in which consumers are affected by the price of bread because some manufacturers had increased the price before these price rises happened. Some respond to the cigarettes price rise as excise tax has increased.
Will the latest price rise lead to reduced quality of service, and thus to a violation of specific consumer rights?
Loncar-Velkova: Well maybe, because if there is greater price rise, consumers will not have as much purchasing power, maybe these good companies that are interested to enter and remain in the market will have no interest in it. It will normally affect the business because it will reduce going to restaurants, travel at home and abroad. It will simply be saved in many areas. In purchase of clothing, food, shoes, this will certainly affect the quality of life. If so far a kilo of bread has been produced, now it will not be a kilo. It has not been that for long. The quantity of some products such as pastry might be reduced. There are cases in the European Union (EU) and here, too, the same packaging that seems to have 500 grams to have 400 grams of a product in order visually not to feel that it is reduced, but in fact the quantity to be reduced and the price to be increased.
Have you received any specific complaints related to recent price rise?
Loncar-Velkova: We have not had many complaints from citizens because they normally call us when they have a problem with certain products that they have purchased. Since January we have had over 1,000 calls in different areas. Of these, 500 relate to the purchase of non-quality product, service or return the product. There are still major problems of citizens. The rights of guarantee and warranty. It is in the first place in Europe, too, they cannot settle these areas. To give you a new product or to replace. Such cases continually arise. And here it is acted depending on what it is about. The Agency for Electronic Communications (AEC) or the State Market Inspectorate if it is about products under its jurisdiction. But we cannot do much if the merchant himself does not decide to solve the problem with the consumer amicably. Sometimes it happens to solve it that way, but it is often solved by another party.
Recently you have conducted an analysis. What did the results show, who violates consumers’ rights in Macedonia most often?
Loncar-Velkova: Various possibilities are used the consumer not to be given a new product, although it is obvious he himself did not break it, but that it is a factory mistake. The consumer is also manipulated with certain agreements, with dishonest clauses in them, in general terms of the contracts and amendments thereto. Without the consumer knowing it, agreeing upon it, or being notified about it. So it is with the banks, with mobile and fixed operators, with public-service utilities. There are lots of violations of consumer rights. As not only the number of cases is growing, but complaints to the Ombudsman are increasing in the field of public services. I believe that legislation has not been completed yet especially because of the dynamics of consumer law, but also because of politics. Laws change, the number of institutions increases.
Summer is the time when various excursions, vacations, seminars are organized, so probably complaints increase. Summer is not over yet, but what is your experience of past years?
Loncar-Velkova: If we comparelast year, until we promoted the brochure for customer problems there were fewer cases. When we launched the brochure more consumers identified it and had comments that they acted on the instructions of the brochure. I think education in this domain helps consumers to identify their rights. I also made a joint appearance with the Association of Travel Agencies of Macedonia (ATAM). And then we had success because the number of cases increased and are now interested in whether they should conclude an agreement, what it should be like, what rights they have pursuant to this agreement and how to protect themselves if something happens off the agreement.
How can consumers know what their rights are when using different services in different areas?
Loncar-Velkova: Now the consumer has become such in all areas, from patients’ rights to rights in public services, so that domain has been extended. It is because they give money for those services. For what you pay you should get the kind of service you agreed. So the first right of the consumer is to have a choice of products on the market. The rights are regulated in a number of laws in which consumers are hard to penetrate. It is therefore necessary to integrate institutions in education, informing and advising these customers together with NGOs, in order to raise awareness among consumers and business operators, too.
How can consumers be best protected? You often say that a contract is the simplest way to do it?
Loncar-Velkova: Best first to address where they think their rights have been violated. If it cannot be resolved amicably or with inspection bodies that deal in that domain, then consumers need to take action before the court when they believe that they need compensation. There is a Law on mediation which brings a new opportunity to hire a mediator to avoid dispute settlement at court.