Pandemic relief: how consumer advocacy in Latin America is fighting to protect the most vulnerable consumers
Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.
GUEST BLOG - Crisólogo Cáceres Valle
Crisólogo is a lawyer, activist and university professor with 30 years of experience in consumer protection. He is the President of the Peruvian Association of Consumers and Users (ASPEC) and member of the Board of Consumers International.
In this blog, he offers a perspective on COVID-19, and how our members are rising to the challenge of protecting vulnerable consumers and building fairer marketplaces
As Latin American governments struggle to address the public health and economic fallout from COVID-19, consumer organisations in the region have been working tirelessly to protect the rights and essential needs of consumers.
Pandemic preparedness varies across Latin America and several countries in the region are particularly vulnerable to the destructive coronavirus outbreak. COVID-19 has exposed inadequacies in social protection systems and heightened risks for the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Now more than ever, consumer advocacy has come forward to monitor unfair practices and guarantee access to basic necessities, to protect the most vulnerable groups in society, and to ensure that people get appropriate compensation and redress.
Food & healthcare
As people face a double threat from the public health emergency and economic recession, consumer organisations have been working hard to prevent shortages and price surges, to improve access to medicine and other basic necessities, and to promote healthy eating and preventative measures:
- Price surges and shortages– ASPEC (Peru) carried out a campaign against the excessive cost of medication and called for governmental action to protect consumers from a shortage of prescription medicines, while Tribuna (Ecuador) focused on raising awareness about panic buying in the early stages of the pandemic. In Argentina, Consumidores Argentinos was instrumental in providing evidence for an investigation into the supply and increased cost of basic necessities (food, medicine, cleaning products) and filed an official complaint with the Municipal Consumer Information Office (OMIC) in San Martin.
- Preventative measures –CDC (El Salvador) has been highlighting the crucial role consumers can play in containing COVID-19 on social media. In Uruguay, LUDECO also launched a campaign to encourage consumers to follow governmental regulations and prevent the spread of the virus in workplaces, households and public spaces, contributing to the country’s particularly low levels of contagion.
- Governmental accountability– In Brazil, IDEC published an open letter with over 150 signatories to denounce the Brazilian authorities’ noncompliance with the scientific guidelines of national institutions and the World Health Organization to face COVID-19. They called upon national authorities to take legal responsibility for preventable deaths from the pandemic.
- Healthy eating– In Venezuela, where long-term shortages of food and essential supplies have worsened during the pandemic, MIC have presented a legislative proposal on healthy and sustainable food to the Chamber of Deputies of the National Assembly and participated in radio and TV programs to highlight this important issue. ADELCO (Argentina) also launched a campaign on nutrition and food safety to support consumers with tips and reliable information on healthy diets.
- Sustainability and future of food– In Panama, UNCUREPA/IPADECU (Panama) have been implementing “Consuacción”, a programme that seeks to build more sustainable food systems in the region and encourage ethical consumption. El Poder del Consumidor (Mexico) have also been working with other Mexican civil society groups to call for robust long-term plans to combat the climate crisis as the region rebuilds post-COVID-19.
Financial Challenges and Inclusion
According to a report by ECLAC, the United Nations office for Latin America and the Caribbean, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to bring about the worst economic contraction in the history of the region, with a projected -5.3 per cent drop in activity this year. As this unprecedented crisis sweeps through the region, consumer organisations are striving to provide financial advice and support – particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable consumers who are being hit hardest by the pandemic:
- Accessibility, insurance and debt – Communications services are absolutely crucial to guarantee access to information, to keep people connected, and to allow certain groups to work remotely and protect their livelihoods. In Peru, ASPEC led a successful action to prevent the Telecommunications Regulatory Body from allowing companies to suspend service for users who had been unable to pay their bills for three months or more. A number of members in the region have also been working to tackle issues such as insurance coverage (PROTESTE, Brazil), financial insolvency (UNCUREPA, Panama) and voluntary unemployment insurance (CONADECUS, Chile) to help consumers who have been most affected by the crisis.
- Misinformation – Throughout Latin America, members are carrying out media campaigns and have launched free services to help vulnerable consumers save money and access reliable information and advice on their rights. In Brazil, PROTESTE also set up an international network to exchange information, best practices and experiences within the Euroconsumers
- Tuition fees– A survey by CONADECUS (Chile) shows that 90% of parents consider school fees should be lowered by at least 25% in the face of the pandemic. Many members in the region, including ASPEC (Peru), UNCUREPA/IPADECU (Panama) and PROTESTE (Brazil) have been campaigning to challenge the high cost of tuition at a time when classes have been suspended and students have little to no access to teaching.
Consumer redress and compensation
Across Latin America, Consumers International members are reporting a lack of clarity over the right to refunds and compensation as a top issue during the pandemic. Their work in this area has empowered consumers to obtain redress and hold businesses accountable for unfair or unconscionable conduct:
- Online purchases- ASPEC (Peru) and CONADECUS (Chile) have been sharing practical tips and information on consumer rights and e-commerce, including issues surrounding product safety, authenticity, data privacy and
- Travel refunds - UNCUREPA/IPADECU (Panama) launched a support programme to help consumers obtain compensation from airlines, while CONADECUS(Chile) filed a class action lawsuit against Latam Airlines, which allegedly owes Chilean consumers over 200 million dollars.
- Services and Utilities - In Chile, ODECU have called for new legislation on customer helpline charges, arguing that the cost of customer service calls should be covered by companies providing the service. ASPEC (Peru) have also initiated complaints in response to a significant surge in consumers’ energy bills during the pandemic.
While governments across Latin America have adopted vastly different approaches to containing COVID-19 and are facing a diverse array of local challenges, there is no denying that the pandemic and its impact have taken the centre stage across the region. As countries and individuals adjust to a new reality, the role of consumer advocacy will continue to be essential in building more sustainable, inclusive, resilient societies.