The agency in charge of protecting and ensuring consumer rights and free competition process in Panama is the Panamanian Consumer Protection and Free Competition Authority (ACODECO). It has developed a work plan focused on educating consumers in how to make informed choices when purchasing goods, without being unduly influenced by advertising, family habits, cultural customs and international trends (in short, everything that diverts the initial intention when purchasing his goods). The plan should prevent consumers from making unnecessary purchases and getting into debt.
Law 45 of 2007 states that the ACODECO has the function of carrying out educational campaigns aimed at consumers. To fulfil that responsibility, ACODECO designed a work plan that encompossas direct contact with different consumers; permanent displays in schools, forums, seminars, exhibitions, fairs and workshops; guided tours of the institution; and house-to-house visits through the ACODECO in a community programme. All this is backed by a wide array of institutional spokespersons, who offer daily guidance to consumers through the media.
The dynamics of ACODECO require us to make daily checks of products and services, ensuring that prices are visible, they are not out-of-date, damaged or without an expiry date. ACODECO ensures that commercial activity of any kind complies with advertising or consumer labels, and protects consumer rights through the guidance that is provided with each conciliation hearing or decision; even, free of charge to the Courts of Commerce, on behalf of consumers and competition in the market.
Market surveillance to promote free competition is another major challenge for ACODECO. Active, undercover surveillance is an effective tool, but only occurs when the entire process of collecting information and research is ready to be presented in the tribunals of justice. Monopolistic practices and cartelised companies are greatly detrimental both to consumers and to other companies in the industry. Although monopolistic practices can be of various types, the common denominator is that they reduce the amount of options that consumers have to make their buying decisions.
Cartelised companies, for example, agree to offer consumers more or less the same goods or services at the same price, or reduce the supply. Supply reduction also occurs when a large company in the market decides to prevent another enterprise from competing. This obstruction to competition, with predatory pricing, makes it impossible for other companies to compete. With no competitors, the dominant company will then raise prices.
ACODECO, as a responsible technical institution, also suggests to the executive power alternatives in various economic fields. For example, on the issue of the increasing cost of the basic food basket, and taking into consideration the objective of improving the food supply, ACODECO recommended to construct or enable at least five peripheral markets to sell the products of the basic food basket. These peripheral markets will be an alternative for the consumer to get quality products at good prices.
In the past six years, ACODECO has solved more than 14,800 complaints in favour of consumers in various consumption topics, for amounts that exceed $127 million (from May 2006 to November 2012) considering the total value of the goods or services in claim.
2012 was one of important satisfaction for those who work in ACODECO because we feel that we are recognised by the public as the entity that protects consumer rights. We also had some issues regarding the sale of combined lottery tickets, leading us to revoke the agreement with the National Lottery given their refusal to apply sanctions to lotto vendors carrying out this practice.
In 2012 we improved some of our services, for example by providing greater interactivity in internet price surveys – with Mi Carrito Comparativo (‘My Comparative Cart’), for example – and by improving the procedure by which consumers use our Complaint Board to make complaints against economic agents. We also created a specialised unit to follow up on complaints made either by phone, in person or through our website and social networks (Twitter and Facebook). Our Facebook page proved so successful that we had to create an additional fan page.
Notwithstanding the above success, we have set ourselves new goals because we believe in the principle of continuous improvement. In 2013 we aim to improve our efficiency in the development of our functions. With this in mind, we will focus on obtaining ISO 9001 certification of several of our internal processes. In addition, we have scheduled the presentation to the Executive and to the National Assembly of a package of reforms to Law 45 of 2007 to shorten the duration of some administrative processes, establish the consumer arbitration system and improve protection of homebuyers from losing part or all their down payments and from dishonest practices by developers and builders who do not honour warranties. This for us is fundamental because the purchase of housing is without doubt the largest investment made by a household and affects the conditions in which a family is developed. We are also working with the Ministry of Education on the issue of the increase in the cost of tuition at private schools.
At the international level, in mid-2013, we will assume the presidency of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), a fact that distinguishes our country and reflects the recognition by our sister agencies in other countries of the effective defence of consumer rights in Panama.
As you can see, we are very excited about 2013 and are confident that at the end of the year we will once again have the satisfaction of having contributed to the welfare of consumers and the market.