Hong Kong's consumer law can work for all

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 3:35am

Hong Kong's hyper-saturated consumer product market gives plenty of choice and variety. That is obviously a boon for consumers, but less so for companies, which have to fight to get attention. Not surprisingly, that means some firms have resorted to making false or questionable claims to make a sale. A law that takes effect today aims to make the unscrupulous honest and if they don't comply, punish them to keep them in line.

We have all seen the boasts: the gym that promises firmer thighs, the supermarket that says its coffee is the cheapest in town; or the website with airline tickets that are so low that they seem too good to be true. Later, we find out the deals were not as they seemed and we feel cheated. Until today, there has been no direct recourse. The expanded trade description law, backed by customs and Telecommunications Authority officers to ensure compliance, should provide better protection.

Whether all goes smoothly is up to companies and consumers. The law broadens provisions already in place for goods and services, creating new offences like wrongly accepting payments, bait-and-switch selling, misleading omissions and aggressive commercial practices. A civil-compliance enforcement mechanism and criminal sanctions have been introduced. Private right of action to claim damages will be possible. In keeping with the increase in on-line shopping, it also applies to cross-border transactions.

The law is a long overdue step in the goal of providing full consumer protection and a fair business environment. As with any legislation, though, all sides have to know and comprehend the provisions for it to work effectively. Businesses that are affected have criticised it as ambiguous, complicated and confusing. Whether it meets objectives depends on enforcement, how aggressively it is applied and the handling of cases by the courts.

Hong Kong is a free market, and the vast majority of businesses in our city are honest and dedicated to providing good service. They well know that cheating a customer to make a quick profit has the downside of lost reputation. No one could possibly object to laws that ensure an even playing field for companies and offer strong consumer protection. The concern and confusion can be dealt with through continued publicity and education. But if the law is to do as intended, all involved have to be dedicated to making it work.