It was the age of Evaly. The 'eCommerce platforms' were offering products at prices too good to be true. Matin ordered two bikes from Alesha Mart – one for himself and the other for his brother-in-law. But soon after he paid, things went south for Alesha Mart – just like they did for most other discount-driven eCommerce platforms.
As failure to deliver products soared and complaints piled up, by June 2021, many banks and mobile financial services cancelled transactions with them. Alesha Mart's top brass fled office in November and its operation was suspended by December 2021 – roughly 12 months after the platform was launched. Matin didn't get his money back.
In June, Alesha Holdings Chairman Monzur Alam Sikder said they were merely a victim of generalisation when banking channels cancelled transactions with them and sought a working capital facility of Tk300 crore from the government to resume its operation and pay back the customers' money.
Matin waited on the promises of refunds they made until July 2022, when he filed complaints against them with the Directorate of National Consumers Right Protection. Alesha Mart, meanwhile, paid some customers through the directorate, but Matin is yet to get a call.
"Whenever I reach out, they say it is not yet my turn," Matin said. "I don't know if I am going to get my money back ever."
When we reached out to AHM Shafiquzzaman, Director General of the Directorate of National Consumers Right Protection, to ask about cases like Matin's, he said, "The chairman of Alesha Mart had made several commitments. They owe people who filed complaints a lot of money, and I cannot solve this overnight. Since the institution is not responding, we will instruct CID or other similar divisions to take action. Almost 800 cases are pending at this moment."
Matin is one of the many customers in Bangladesh exploited in myriad forms by goods and services providers in the country. From overpricing, fake products, fake medicines, fake hospitals, and even fake doctors, adulterated foods to overpricing of water, numerous forms of consumer exploitation exist here.
To protect the rights of consumers, the government passed the consumer rights act several years ago. In recent years we have seen activities of the directorate of consumer rights protection that was formed through this law, but observers and analysts say that the steps taken by the directorate are simply not enough. While complaints have risen, awareness of consumer rights remains low.
Vendors, on the other hand, are unhappy with the steps taken by the Directorate to protect consumer rights, alleging that it is harming their business.
Many shades of customer exploitation
We recently went through the complaints lodged with the government directorate and at the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) – a private body - to learn about how customers are mostly exploited in Bangladesh.
Ecommerce obviously topped the list, followed by the healthcare sector, including overcharging on medical bills or fake medicines, restaurants overcharging for drinks or adulterated food, courier services for failing to deliver on time or at all, and MFS companies for overcharging fees.
While the complaints lodged with the government directorate are in the thousands, the CAB said they received a couple of hundred complaints in 2022.
"In January, people used to complain mostly about e-commerce fraud. But ever since the Ministry of Commerce started developing a new policy for e-commerce, these complaints started decreasing. Now the government has e-commerce under control," said Anwar Parvej, CAB information officer.
"Nowadays, most of the complaints we receive are diverse. For example, we receive complaints ranging from the price of bottled water to medical services, the outrageous fare for the public transportation system, issues relating to the electricity bill, etc.," he added.
CAB itself cannot address the complaints since it is a private body. They forward the complaints to the directorate on behalf of the complainants and coordinate further processes for them.
The directorate, on receiving a complaint, sets a date for a hearing. The consumer can complain online through email or visit their offices directly.
If the complaint is filed properly, a notice on the hearing date is sent to both parties by the department.
If the accused is found guilty at the hearing, they are punished under several categories of financial penalty. And the complainant, if they are not an officer with the directorate, receives 25% of the penalty amount.
From 2011 to July 2022, the Directorate received a total of 60,651 complaints across the country; of them, 57,538 cases have been settled. The number of complaints is increasing every year, but slowly. The total number of complaints in 2020-21 was 14,910. Whereas in the first nine months of 2021-22, there were 12,767 complaints.
Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) President Ghulam Rahman said, "One of the most common complaints of consumers is being deceived by sellers when it comes to the weight of goods. Besides this, the selling of low-grade or counterfeit medicine is another major source of complaint. The medical service consumers receive in our country is no good either. It is infested with fake doctors, fake pathological test reports and things like that."
"Moreover, everything is overpriced in Bangladesh. For example, the retail price of a bottle of water is Tk10. But in most cases, consumers have to buy them for Tk25 to Tk50. Whenever there is a festival, consumers pay unreasonably high transportation fares. Consumer rights are violated everywhere and we cannot cover the entirety of it even if we talk all day long," he added.
Not enough protection
After the consumers' right protection act of 2009 was implemented and the directorate was formed, it took roughly till the eCommerce scam year – 2021 – for people to get familiar with its presence.
The detailed 73 provisions of the law clarify the scope of complaints and the punishments entailed for breaching various rules.
The law provisions temporary closure of any shop or commercial enterprise for anti-consumer rights practices. It details the procedure of confiscation, financial punishment (starting with Tk50,000 to two lac), jail time for offences like not packaging goods, not listing the price, selling goods or services at a higher price, deceiving buyers through false advertisements etc.
The law doesn't allow complaints more than 30 days after the incident. The offences are tried by a magistrate of the first class or a metropolitan magistrate.
It can take up from a few days to months to get a verdict in some cases.
Analysts and observers, however, say while the law has some strong provisions, it is far from ensuring the rights of customers due to lack of awareness, budget constraints and other limitations. One glaring limitation is it does address systemic issues in the marketplace.
"We have been hearing about [the directorate] them since the Evaly [crisis days]. They have a hotline. But the problem is people don't know about it," said former Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) President Almas Kabir. "Most of the time, people suffer, but they don't know where to go or who to call."
"It needs a good campaign… Just like the stores have vat lines mandatorily written, the mention of this hotline number should also be made mandatory… call this if you have a complaint," he added.
CAB President Ghulam Rahman also had a similar point of view.
"Most of the people of Bangladesh are not that conscious about their rights. Compared to the last ten years, now people are a bit more aware of their rights, but not that much," Ghulam Rahman said.
CAB President Rahman had no criticism of the role the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection is playing, though.
"There is no lack of effort [on the part of the directorate], in my opinion. Their limitations are mostly legal in nature. In addition, they lack efficiency because they lack staff. Every district office of the National Consumer Rights Protection Directorate has only one official and at most one or two staff," he said.
When requested to further explain the nature of legal limitations, the CAB president said, "For example, if a consumer places complaints against a mobile company for violating his rights on the package he bought, what the Directorate can do in this case is they can only address that particular case. But the company is selling that same package to thousands of other consumers. The legal limitation here is that Directorate cannot take actions proportionate to the crime committed by the company."
DG Shafiquzzaman disagreed that the directorate lacked promotion.
"We cannot advertise on TV for cost issues," the DG said. "However, what we traditionally do is that we organise seminars and events. In the past few months, we collaborated with public and private universities, press clubs etc. We also organised seminars with the reporters' community.
"Our focus now is primarily on Facebook and YouTube. Our videos have more than 40 million views on YouTube. It means we have reached four crore people. We are sending our message there…To sum it up, we are primarily focusing on social media to promote our activities," he added.
A line too far?
On the flip side, companies/vendors the actions of the Directorate are impacting their business.
The directorate often conducts mobile court operations and there are plenty of videos online showing their officers fining or suing restaurants.
On Facebook, a page named 'Voktakantho' posted a video on January 9 of a government raid on the Kacchi Bhai restaurant, where a government official discovers 'industry-grade colour ingredients' that the restaurateurs were apparently mixing with the food. He goes on to ask the restaurant manager to drink the liquid colour ingredients on camera [they didn't drink, obviously] and filed a case against them.
The restaurateurs are not happy with such raids from the directorate.
"The consumer rights protection law has many flaws. This law is not properly drafted. It doesn't keep the provision to appeal in many cases. The absence of the opportunity of appeal is a violation of law," said Syed Mohammad Andalib, a restaurant owner and the organising secretary of Bangladesh restaurant owners associations.
He also criticised the Directorate recording and uploading the mobile court videos on YouTube and Facebook describing it as a 'breach of privacy'.
"The biggest violation [of law] is the mobile courts. The consumer protection directorate doesn't have the legal approval to conduct mobile courts. They have the right to do so only when a consumer goes and appeals specifically," Andalib said, adding that the consumer rights law's provision to allow complainants 25% of the punishment fee "unjust".
Almas Kabir also insisted on the modernisation of the law so that it doesn't create problems for the vendors.
"Sometimes, perhaps, we are creating problems for vendors while protecting the customers. Especially, we have seen that in digital businesses," Almas said, adding, "The consumer rights protection law is and should be to protect the rights of consumers. But it should not be in a way that endangers the other side."
We asked the directorate DG about the mobile courts.
"If we didn't have a legal right to conduct them, the high court would automatically rule against us. Our administrative activities are conducted within the legal framework," he said.
About uploading the videos on social media platforms, he said, "What we are doing on our social media platforms is that we are bringing up the irregularities and mismanagement that we find out in these places. It is not like we are defaming just everyone. Those who are doing well, we do not talk about them."
The DG also defended the complainant's share of financial penalties. "The consumers complain to us individually. The 25% share of the fine that they talk about, consumers get it only if their complaints are valid."