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Spare the cane, correct the commerce

  • Published at 12:04 am June 10th, 2019
Gavel and Hammer
Photo: BIGSTOCK

When it comes to business, old habits die hard

What started as a mere drive to protect consumer rights developed into a debate that demands attention and further discussion. As soon as Ramadan started, a drive led by a government agency to oversee violation of consumer rights was initiated.

One of the officials came to the attention of media after he had fined top beauty parlours and shopping malls. There is no short of panegyrics for him. But it was his action against the country’s top fashion outlet, which maintains a well-organized supply chain of handicraft items, that provoked debate.

He fined the outlet because it sold one kind of panjabi at two different prices in a week. Owners called it “human error” and apologized to people. But the misogynist official broadcast his actions on his social media account and even gave interviews to private TV channels. Soon, news broke out that he had been discharged from his duty. The decision was made prior to his drive against the fashion outlet. But sympathy for him deluged the social media and his removal was attributed to foul play by the outlet. 

In our country, public officials face restrictions while giving frank views and opinions to the press. They usually need superiors’ nod. Has there been any change to such rule? If not, then how could he appear before the TV and broadcast his actions on Facebook? Most of his victims are non-partisan brands and many are run or operated by women. Some of the charges were whimsical -- a renowned beauty parlour was fined because it kept imported goods with no validity date.

Just a year ago, a similar campaign at a mega shopping mall during Ramadan brought forth the issue -- a raiding team seized a cache of mobile phones from a mobile shop. 

Ramadan is the month that accounts for a half/quarter of the annual sales of the market. Retailers often hoard imported goods sold by migrant workers with no valid documents. 

In a corruption-stricken country where businessmen are paying unofficial levies to stalwarts, men-in-uniform, and functionaries regularly, they can only stay in business by compromising on consumer rights. In a country where party apparatchik and former foot-soldiers became editor and owner of media houses -- there has been a growing tendency to portray the business community as “bloodsuckers” and a “money-making machine,” this vilification made a banal impression among consumers about them.

To my dismay, I noticed none of the businesses associated with parties or defense establishment was touched. This kind of drive was not done in an even-handed way and vindictive behaviour may soil its fruition. Such harsh measures may lead to dishonest practices at a later date to recuperate the “loss” of the businessmen. So, instead of improving consumer rights, this kind of action may further worsen it.

Also, this kind of drive was blind to the roadside illegal markets that generate a steady stream of revenue to cadre-based parties. Last year, I noticed a recruitment advertisement for an SME financing company operated by a principal law enforcement agency. How could a state organ, that is supposed to do a certain task, run such a business that may lead to contradicting the very objective it is designed to do?

If microcredit institutions were to finance the markets, then there would be no issues until they operate within some legal framework. We really do not have any standard of consumer goods, rating of businesses. 

It would be wrong to treat a family-run business with that of a conglomerate, to compare the services of a chain boutique shop on a par with those of a retail clothes seller. 

It is unjust to expect hygiene and services to exist in a developed country from a local restaurant and retail shop, as we do not see and practice the degree of governance that prevails in those countries. Many developed countries, in fact, are on the verge of changing the rules to make business economically viable and to better use resources. For instance, France is making a law that requires unsold non-food goods closer to the end of their shelf life be banned from destruction and be recycled, reused, and remade. 

This is called smart policy-making. Bangladesh should take a cue from France.

Before securing consumer rights, we need to rank our businesses, to rationalize quality standards. 

We need to introduce the Corporate Governance Index. For that, a dialogue is needed between the government and guilds, and between consumers and guilds. Comeuppance and severe chastisement cannot often achieve the desired goals. Failure of the two-year-long caretaker government is the stark reminder. It tried to cleanse the corruption from politics and business through heavy-handed methods. 

The ensuing result is shocking: Old habits did not die and, in fact, turned worse and our banks and share market were literally plundered. 

Innovative ways can be explored eschewing harsh methods. At the end of the day, it is the objective that matters most and if it is achieved by employing means that inflict no collateral damage, then that is the best alternative. 

Rezaul Hoque is a freelance contributor.