On nuisance calls, the time for talk is over; we need action

Telemarketers claim that for them it is a matter of survival but as survey after survey shows, Hongkongers are fed up with unwanted phone calls

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 12:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 1:16am

Hongkongers long ago got fed up with unwanted phone calls from telemarketers. A do-not-call register to prevent electronic messages gave some relief, but it is now time for the measure to be extended to so-called cold, or person-to-person, calls. Surveys show rising demand for action, the latest with 96 per cent of respondents considering them a nuisance. A consultation to give direction is under way, but for the sake of our already noise-filled lives, the conclusion that legislation is necessary is obvious.

The telemarketing industry argues that jobs are at stake. An estimated 7,000 people are employed to make more than 200,000 calls to Hongkongers each day, although their working terms and conditions are unclear. How many are based in Hong Kong is another unknown, with calls also coming from outside our city, often the mainland. But the financial returns for such effort is fast diminishing, if the study commissioned by the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau is any guide, showing the effectiveness dropping to 10 per cent in 2015 from 21 per cent in 2008.

Small and medium-sized companies that claim high rents for street-level shops are forcing them to resort to telemarketing for business argue that even diminutive returns are worthwhile. The industry contends self-regulation rather than laws are the best approach. Training callers to cause a minimum amount of disturbance is its suggestion. But this is obviously no solution, as years of complaints have not engendered such behaviour.

How to deal with cold-callers in Hong Kong

A third of people in one study said they received six or more calls a week. The more exasperated have turned to all manner of deterrents to ward off the unwelcome irritants, including abuse, blowing whistles and simply disregarding ringing phones. But there are risks to the latter, as a woman who ignored 17 calls believing they were from telemarketers found; they were from the hospital where her husband had been taken after being involved in a car accident.

With legislation the best option, the matter therefore becomes about enforcement. Some people welcome such calls, so there has to be regulation rather than a ban. The method used with electronic messages seems the obvious choice; a government survey of 17 overseas jurisdictions found a do-not-call register was considered the most effective, although it came with challenges. Among them is how to deal with calls made from outside Hong Kong.

Governments elsewhere have found ways to enforce and deter. Stiff fines, downloadable apps and call-blocking systems are among them. We all have a right to peace and privacy. Action has to be taken against unwelcome telemarketing calls.