Ministry Of Commerce Seeks To Improve Consumer Empowerment

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Minister of Commerce,??Haynesley Benn

Representatives of the Ministry of Commerce and Trade met with Caribbean Project Coordinator of Consumers International (CI) Jamaica, Candice Ramessar, yesterday, in a courtesy call which focused on consumer empowerment.

During the talks, Minister Haynesley Benn said that he was looking forward to Barbados re-enlisting as a member of the organisation and its continued participation in the ongoing Consumer Protection in the Caribbean Project, which has also been established in Trinidad and Jamaica.??

In addition, he agreed that the project held great value for Barbadian consumers and observed that educating the public about how to create savings was vital, "as consumer cost of living continues to be at the forefront of concerns for the Ministry".?? He embraced the model being formed through Jamaica’s successes and saluted the work achieved with their Banking Code, which will be the first agreement of its kind in the region, between a consumer service agency and the banking industry.

The project, which is supported by the respective governments, Consumers International and the International Development Bank, has focused on improving public awareness about banking, highlighting issues such as exorbitant interest rates, hidden bank charges and misleading advertising.

Thus far, Ms. Ramessar’s organisation, which is dedicated to the education and informed financial decision making of consumers, has successfully engaged the banking sector in Jamaica and effected significant change.??

"We began to work on a Code [of Conduct for banks in Jamaica] and we have really made great strides.?? It has transformed the way banks work, such as having greater transparency with fees.?? We have billboards and jumbotrons [with information for the public].?? Some banks have decreased, and in some instances, discarded some of their fees, such as dormancy fees," she explained.??

Ms. Ramessar revealed that progress was being made in Trinidad as well, where a survey, which will determine some of the issues facing consumers, will soon be completed.?? She added that consumer empowerment begins when the customer has become aware of how to choose wisely and remarked that in the Jamaican survey, it was discovered that "overwhelmingly, banks were chosen based on family history and distance to [their] homes.?? So choice was based on emotion or proximity, not the actual bank service," Ms. Ramessar indicated.?? She further noted that there were challenges, with obtaining relevant information from banks for survey purposes, but maintained that she looked forward to the Project’s success in all three territories.

The voluntary Code represents an understanding between consumer groups, banks and government about the guidelines which will govern the relationship between consumers and financial institutions.

This concept was one that was strongly supported last September at CI’s regional seminar on banking, credit, financial services and consumer protection, which was held in Barbados. The event saw the participation of experts from various institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

According to the Caribbean Project Coordinator, more than half of the activities listed for the three-year project, which began in June 2009, have been achieved.?? She pointed out that going forward, there will be a sustained focus on strengthening consumer organisations in the region through training in data analysis, consumer protection and policy; the management and financing of consumer organisations; and encouraging financial literacy for consumers. In addition, website development for consumer organisations in Barbados and Jamaica and the creation of a website for the Caribbean Consumer Council will be included. Regional governments are also expected to have developed a policy position on consumer issues by the end of the project.

nekaelia.hutchinson@barbados.gov.bb

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