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Overall Consumer Complaints drop 6% to New Low in 18 Years Soaring Medical Service Disputes Up 25% Calls for Attention Mandatory Cooling-off Period Urged to Boost Consumer Safeguard
The number of complaints lodged with the Consumer Council in 2019 has dropped to a new low in 18 years, shrinking by 6% to 24,615 cases compared with the previous year. Complaints on services totaled 15,237 cases, a slight dip of 1%, but product-related complaints dropped a significant 12% to 9,378 cases, falling under the 10,000 threshold for the first time in 16 years. Consumer complaints leveled against medical services, however, rose a hefty 25%, involving mainly mainland consumers flocking to Hong Kong for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination services. The Council opined that the issue has to be attended seriously as it impacts adversely not only the professional medical sector but also the overall service and tourist industries in Hong Kong.
In recent years, the Council has seen a steady decline in all complaints with rising consumer awareness to protect their own rights and enterprises have strengthen their internal complaint handling mechanism. Nonetheless, disputes these days have become more complex than before, increased the difficulty in reaching a resolution. To enhance consumer safeguard, the Council will strive its utmost to press for early implementation of the Mandatory Cooling-off Period on the beauty and fitness sectors and, furthermore, actively engage in consumer education that could, besides effectively lowering the rate of consumer complaints, empower consumers to make consistently rational and astute choice.
5 major complaint categories
For the first time medical services have taken over telecoms services as the top category with the most complaints – totaling 3,104 cases last year up 26% over 2018. Such complaints have been noticeably on the rise in the past 3 years largely because of the increasing number of people from the mainland seeking HPV vaccinations in Hong Kong. But the vaccines began to be in short supply in 2017 and 2018, triggering off complaints by the mainlanders who despite full payment, were unable to receive all 3 vaccinations as promised. As the situation worsened in 2019, which the supply of vaccines could not catch up with its demand, clinics eager to clinch the profits by using vaccines of parallel imports and even counterfeits, resulting in a deluge of nearly 3,000 complaints, or 90% of the overall complaints against medical services. The steady rise in vaccination complaints in recent years has reflected the issues have been further deteriorated, the industry is strongly urged to exercise self-discipline, and the authorities to strengthen their regulatory oversight to safeguard consumer rights.
Telecoms services took second place with 2,615 cases last year. Though less than the previous year by 6%, some telecoms operators allegedly set consumers’ mobiles into auto-activation mode for roaming services while travelling abroad, which led to a steep rise of 56% in complaints involving roaming data charges. Most disputes were about operators failing to explain clearly the contents of the service agreements, terms and conditions, and fees and charges, bringing the number of complaints in respect of telecoms sale practices up over 3%. In light of the impending launch of 5G service plans on the market, telecoms operators should ensure information transparency of their service packages so as to enable consumers to be well informed with relevant details and thus making smart choices.
Travel matters came third, totaling 2,232 complaints last year, a slight 5% reduction over the year before. The decline was attributed mainly to falling complaints on airlines, hotel and air-ticket packages. However, complaints concerning hotel booking surged 30% instead, among them disputes over variation/termination of contracts were up a hefty 1.5 times.
Electrical appliances were in fourth placing with a 2% slight decrease to 1,788 cases, among them 60% involving disputes over repairs/maintenance services, and quality of goods. Complaints on white goods such as refrigerators, range hoods and microwave ovens went up. Manufacturers are called on, in addition to provide products of good quality and durability, to seriously handle repairs and maintenance problems so as to win customers’ confidence in support of sustainable consumption.
Last in the top 5 categories were food and entertainment services. Compared with 2018, the past year saw an overall 11% decline to 1,301 cases, the decrease was probably due to the cancellation of a number of concert performances during the year as indicated in the almost 50% drop in such complaints. However, prices/charges disputes and quality of services each took up over 30% of the complaints in this category, reflecting room for improvement in service provision by the industry.
Consumer complaints induced by social unrest
In the latter half of the year under review, Hong Kong has seen demonstrations and protests continued unabated. Though impact on the overall complaints is marginal, the unrest has spurred rising complaints in some items particularly those in relation to railway services soaring up 3 times to 105 cases due mainly to frequent suspension of train services and some key facilities being severely vandalized and damaged. Also hard hit on hotel booking last year bringing complaints up 28% to 542 cases as tourists balked at their planned visits to Hong Kong but experienced difficulty with hotel booking cancellation.
The Council is actively engaged in education the environment impact of different goods and services is able to help the consumer in executing green consumption. In the past year, the Council has launched a series of related activities including incorporating environmental elements in 15 product tests and market survey reports, representing one-fourth of the overall total, on such products as dish washers, LED light bulbs, wireless chargers, as well as evaluation of durability of domestic electrical products. Also reported were concerns over products that may contain harmful ingredients to the human body. For instance, a test on the slime toys detected the presence of harmful migrating Borax in 70% of the samples, exceeding the European Union maximum limit. In some reports were included also durability test items. For example, in a test on non-stick cooking pans, over 80% of the samples were found to have their non-stick coating peeling off. The findings are helping consumers to choose products with better durability to minimize unnecessary waste.
More recently, in its continual effort to promote consumer education, the Council has targeted primary school students with its latest project “Earth 2038”, which after a year of test trials is now in full swing. Through its “experiential learning” approach, young students learn about their daily consumption behavior and attitude, and each of their consumption decision could bring on the planet. Still in its developing stage, the programme has already proved to be most promising. In an opinion survey, the majority of the thousands of participants from 31 schools found the activity helpful in enhancing their awareness of sustainable consumption, and so were the participating teachers with positive appraisal that the activity could bring promising impact on not only nurturing the right concept but also in practice.
2 study reports published last year
Over the past year, the Council published an in-depth study report in May, “Creating Sustainable Value for Private Health Insurance (PHI) Market in Hong Kong”, a comprehensive review and analysis of the problems and issues consumers face in the PHI market, with a package of 14 recommendations that aims to encourage and hold all stakeholders fully responsible to enhance regulatory oversight and transparency of the market to boost consumer confidence. In the long term, the healthy robust development of the PHI market will in turn help relieve the pressure of public health services, creating ultimately a triple win-win.
In September, the Council published another study, “Money Lending – Reforming Law and Trade Practices for Consumer Protection”, with an appeal for reform of the existing Money Lenders Ordinance and trade practices. The study points out that the current Ordinance has never had any major amendment in 40 years, seriously outdated in keeping up with the market development. It urges the Government to set up a sector specific regulator for the supervision and guidance of the industry, in a joint effort to build a fair and transparent money lending market. Moreover, the Government should take the lead to coordinate between the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and the industry for effective information dissemination and consumer education so as to heighten consumer awareness of the risks of borrowing with informed decision making.
In collaboration with Singapore and mainland cities
Consumers now can, at the flip of fingers, choose their favourite purchase online from anywhere around the world. As online shops could come from different jurisdictions, in the case of disputes arise, the mediation of such cross-border complaints would become extremely difficult to handle. Last year, the Council signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) and counterpart organizations in many mainland China cities, for cooperation in establishing consumer complaint mechanism. The mainland cities included all 9 Guangdong Province cities in the Greater Bay Area (GBA): Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Huizhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen, Zhaoqing as well as Macau. The cooperative agreements are set to further the close Guangdong/ Hong Kong/ Macau exchange in consumer protection. The close cooperation between Hong Kong and the territories under the MOU agreement will ensure a swift effective complaint resolution mechanism.
In the year ahead, the Council is resolutely committed to the early fruition and implementation of the Mandatory Cooling-off Period initially on the beauty and fitness sectors to strengthen consumer protection. It will continue to review the operation of different sectors and examine the need to expand the scope of the Mandatory Cooling-off regime where necessary.
Promoting sustainable consumption will be another top priority of the Council this year. It will join forces in partnership with the Consumers International (CI) in response to the theme of this year “World Consumer Rights Day” to rally consumers to pledge commitment to put into practice the concept of sustainable consumption in their daily lives. More details will be released in the coming March issue of CHOICE.
In view of the yet unsettled social unrest, the consumer market may experience further challenges in the year ahead. The Council is concerned about the prospect of business closure in the retail and restaurant industries and the subsequent impact on consumers. It will closely monitor the situation in vigilance of potential upsurge in undesirable sale practices at a time of economic slowdown and will issue timely advice to consumers in safeguard of their rights and interests.