2016 Activities

Food Safety: Consumer Protection Measures are Insufficient…Civil Committee is needed for Supervision and Control

Food Safety: Consumer Protection Measures are Insufficient…Civil Committee is needed for Supervision and Control

Aiming at examining the extent by which integrity, transparency and accountability are applied in measures and procedures pertaining to consumer protection in Palestine, specifically concerning spoiled food, the Coalition for Integrity and Accountability-AMAN held an accountability session for the General Director of the Consumer Protection Department in Gaza, Mr. Ziad Abu-Shaqra, on Tuesday October 25, 2016. The meeting’s main purpose was to provide an opportunity for Mr. Abu-Shaqra and other parties in the field to respond to citizens’ inquiries pertaining to the subject mentioned, and to discuss a fact-sheet working paper prepared by AMAN, which reflects AMAN’s standpoint on the subject. 

Unremitting and faltering efforts by of the Consumer Protection Department due to weak capabilities

Mr. Abu-Shaqra began by addressing the legal reference governing the work of Consumer Protection Department. He explained that this department is entrusted with the task of monitoring and supervision of the food supply chain for the Consumer Protection Department at the Ministry of Economy, under the Consumer Protection Act No. 21 of 2005 and its accompanying regulations. He also presented objectives of the Department, which are consistent with the Act mentioned as he said. These are: to protect and guarantee consumers’ rights that ensure their safety and protect them from any health risks, injustice, and or economic losses; to provide goods and services and prevent exploitation and price manipulation; and to protect consumer’s rights in obtaining goods and services that are in line with the enforced technical regulations.
Mr. Abu-Shaqra added that the department complies with all procedures and measures stipulated in the law.  The Department exerts all efforts to achieve its objectives and implement all tasks assigned to it by coordinating with the department of laboratories, the department of weights and measures, and the legal department. He also presented the department’s work mechanisms for monitoring and inspecting imported materials, goods and services, which begins at the Israeli checkpoint and ends in warehouses and local markets.  He said that supervision and control field operations are an on-going process carried out by employees of the Consumer Protection Department. These filed operations have at times seized large quantities of spoiled food displayed in shops and supermarkets that are in violation of legal standards and specifications. However, the department is unable to control all spoiled food offered in local markets due to the limited number of staff at the Ministry, which does not exceed 70 employees distributed over the main and branch offices in the Gaza Strip.  

Criminal Reconciliation Opens the Door for Bribery, Nepotism, and Favoritism

It is worth noting that AMAN had presented a fact-sheet which illustrated the legal background for the protection of consumer rights. The paper defined legal articles and regulations governing tasks entrusted to the Consumer Protection Department.  These tasks are summarized as follows:  follow-up on citizens’ complaints; keeping tap on inspection and monitoring operations regarding consumer goods; price control; combating fraud, monopoly, and exploitation; carrying out the supervisory role on the food supply chain operations; and building a consumer protection culture.
AMAN’s paper revealed that the Consumer Protection Department was not fulfilling its duties regarding some of the tasks assigned some of which include: As the Ministry did provide a toll-free number to receive and address citizens’ complaints pertaining to food, the number was never activated according to the General Director of the department. This reflects lack of readiness on the part of the ministry to respond to citizens. It also indicates weakness of the accountability systems within the department. From another aspect, the Consumer Protection Department has not been publishing periodic reports illustrating its mechanisms at work.  It was satisfied to publish irregular “seasonal” reports linked to holidays. This is in addition to its lack of commitment to implement direct citizens’ awareness campaigns, hence utilizing opportunities to promote and encourage people to report cases of spoiled food, and merchants who deal with it. Furthermore, work mechanism used at the department does not include a procedure for evaluating employees’ performance to respond to their shortcomings such as providing specific training courses to develop inspectors’ capabilities as needed; in addition to the department’s lack of effort to develop or adopt a code of conduct for its employees.
The fact- sheet also addressed amendments proposed by the Legal Committee at the Legislative Council in Gaza during a workshop held in Gaza, in the presence of representatives from the Ministry of Economy and other related parties.  The Committee considered the legal text in force to be a hindrance to the work of consumer protection and is no longer suitable for the circumstances brought about by the siege on Gaza. The workshop showed that the amendments aimed at reducing monopoly over basic goods and supplies by some dealers; imposing harsher penalties for crimes of fraud and sale of spoiled and food past its expiration date. Moreover, the amendments also aimed at granting the competent minister the powers to take precautionary measures against violators within the law.  This can be drawn in a legal provision which grants powers of reconciliation between the Ministry of Economy and the merchant accused of committing a crime against a consumer. A financial contract would need to be formulated to specify a financial settlement; all within legal procedures, limitations and criteria that ensures a balance between public and personal interests.
In that regard, AMAN discovered that the Palestinian Law absolutely does not address, within articles pertaining to misdemeanors, the principle of reconciliation.  AMAN sees that to introduce this type of penalty (criminal reconciliation) would provide opportunities for bribery, nepotism, and favoritism in application of the provision, in addition to the fact that the sanctions are not deterrent.
In his response to AMAN’s fact-sheet, Abu-Shaqra said that the Department’s failure to implement all tasks entrusted to it is primarily associated to the weakness in the department’s capabilities to carry on tasks such as public awareness raising campaigns. However, he confirmed the need for activating the complaint unit at the department.  In regard to the reconciliation item granted by the Legislative Council to the Ministry of Economy, Abu-Shaqra explained that this principle is left to the Ministry’s discretion of the merchant. He added that the ministry takes the initiative of coordinating with the prosecution in regard to taking the settlement decision as a deterrent punishment. It also coordinates with the Ministry of Finance in order to deposit the settlement amount in its account.
Munther Sbeih, Legal Advisor at the Ministry of Economy, illustrated all punitive measures that are guaranteed by law to protect the rights of consumers. He explained that the penalty (financial settlement) is set at a minimum of 500 Israeli Shekles, and a maximum of 2000 Shekles, depending on the magnitude of the offense received from the Control and Inspection Unit.

Recommendation: To Allow Civil Society to Intervene in Consumer Protection

Mr. Yousef Abu-Saleemeh, a representative from the State Audit and Administrative Control Bureau (SAACB) in the Gaza Strip, agreed with the observations raised by AMAN. He informed the attendees that these observations were in line with SAACB’s comments and recommendations that were presented to the Consumer Protection Department in the Bureau’s monthly report. Most importantly, SAACB stated in the monthly report mentioned that it does not accept the item pertaining to financial settlements as a sufficient or deterrent punishment for major offenses such as spoiled meat and four, especially since they affect large segments of the Palestinian people.
For his part, Mr Mohammad Al-Mansi, Public Relations Coordinator for the General Union for Palestinian Industries, raised an important point relating to punishments imposed on merchants by the Ministry in cases where the merchant had imported products with one third time left of its validity. In such cases, according to Mr. Al-Mansi, the Ministry confiscates the product/s and imposes a financial fine on the merchant, while at the same time it redistributes the confiscated product in the local market to be sold to citizens. Or it distributes it to charitable organizations without an information sheet to show the urgency to be consumed within the short period stamped. Mr. Al-Mansi agreed that the item on reconciliation, referred to above, might open the door for bribery and conflict of interest, in addition to the possibility of being an opportunity for extortion.
Mr. Osama Nofal, General Director of Planning at the Ministry of Economy in Gaza, said that the consumer protection staff is in need of development in terms of building their capacities. He also added that management of the consumer protection file must be independent. It is also vital that a commission or higher council that can bring together all relevant parties be established. The committee should be tasked with control over the food sector in order to activate monitoring and control mechanisms in that area.
Recommendations of the session focused on the necessity of activating the supervisory and control role on food safety, hence ensuring the safety of consumers.  In addition, attendees pointed to the importance of creating space for civil society to make recommendations on an ongoing basis to consumer protection related parties. Participants also recommended that AMAN coordinate with official parties in charge of supervision and control of the food sector.  As recommended by attendees of the session, this would be achieved by forming a civil committee consisting of national and civil organizations working in the field of protection of the food chain, in general.

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