Customers are king, so the saying goes. A society that lives on consumption like Hong Kong is therefore expected to offer the best protection for consumers. Sadly, the current situation is far from satisfactory. Although the Consumer Council has done a great job in promotion and mediation, it remains a toothless tiger without enforcement power. In the event of a deadlock, the only way to seek redress is going to court.
It is good that the watchdog is studying the feasibility of arbitration as an alternative. The process is less costly and time-consuming than a lawsuit. Yet the outcome is legally binding. Another advantage is that the dispute will be settled behind closed doors rather than an open hearing in court. This may be a better option for those who wish to keep their case low-profile. Businesses have long recognised the merits and opt for arbitration to resolve commercial disputes.
Our neighbours in Macau introduced an arbitration centre for consumer disputes as early as 1998. It is intriguing why the option is only tabled now. Over the years, Hong Kong has come a long way in enhancing consumer rights and protection. But as figures show, about 20 per cent of the complaints handled by the Consumer Council cannot be resolved. Even if the aggrieved want to pursue further with a lawsuit, the tedious and expensive legal proceedings often make the action unworthy.
Arbitration in Macau is limited to cases involving not more than 50,000 patacas. There were only 107 cases in the first seven years, dismissing worries of abuses even though the service is free of charge. The Macau model also comes with an integrity scheme in which shops and companies sign up with a pledge to observe good sales practice. The scheme enhances as much consumer confidence as business reputation.
Enhancing consumer rights and protections can never be the wrong step to take. The watchdog should speed up the study, taking into account our neighbour's experience and modify.