Consumers in Hong Kong deserve stronger laws to protect their interests

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 1:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 1:50am

It is not often that the government finds itself criticised by friend and foe alike over a single omission from a new law that otherwise has wide support. Starry Lee Wai-king, now leader of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and the Democratic Party's Fred Li Wah-ming must be tempted to remind officials of their disappointment that amendments to the trade descriptions law did not include a "cooling off" period for consumers to change their minds, cancel a contract and get a refund after signing up for expensive services.

We are not to know whether this would have made any difference to a case in which two employees and two directors of a fitness centre chain in Mong Kok have been arrested over allegations they forced a customer to pay HK$38,000 for a 10-year membership. Already a member of the fitness centre, the woman declined the second contract, but allegedly gave her credit and ID cards to a saleswoman, who said she was going to look into discounts, and then used the card to collect payment without consent. Surely, even if the member had signed up willingly, but then had a week to reflect on it, she would have reconsidered. A 10-year commitment is a gamble. The fitness industry is very competitive. Who is to know, years hence, if the centre would still be operating, or at the same address, or if the client would still be committed? Moreover, a cooling-off period would act as a deterrent to unscrupulous conduct.

It is a common safeguard to be found, for example, in some telecom, banking and insurance products. However, the government told Legco when criminalising unfair practices such as false descriptions and bait advertising that a cooling-off period would be "complicated", and needed further consultation with a wide range of traders and their associations to find a consensus. Two years later, the allegations surrounding the four arrests raise concerns about whether there is a sense of urgency in resolving the complications. This city rightly cherishes its business freedoms. But reports of blatant consumer rip-offs do nothing to enhance them.