Caribbean technocrats are hoping that a regional cross-border consumer alert system for potentially harmful products can soon be a reality if Caribbean Community (Caricom) governments make a recently-launched programme work. Under the system, non-food and pharmaceutical products can be withdrawn from Caricom markets and action taken to ensure that regional and international manufacturers address consumer safety concerns. At first glance, one leading local consumer advocate thinks it's a great idea, but some countries have been slow off the mark to put things in place.Some unfinished business includes legislative amendments to allow for stronger official interventions, stakeholder consultations to ensure regional manufacturers are fully on board and ensuring that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are aware of the possibilities under the new system.
"I think it's a good idea," said Hazel Brown. "But people must know about how it works and they must also trust it," the veteran advocate told the Business Guardian. Known as the Caricom Rapid Alert System for Exchange of Information on Dangerous (non-food) Consumer Goods (Carrex), the intention is to ensure that Caricom countries are promptly alerted to the existence of flawed products on the regional market. A network, mediated by the Caricom secretariat, has been designed and caters to information flows through a system of national contact points-invariably consumer affairs departments within government-"economic operators," including manufacturers and sellers, local administration bodies and consumers-both directly and through their representative NGOs. The passage of harmonised legislation in member states and the convening of stakeholder consultations are lagging in some countries, including T&T, but existing domestic mechanisms already cover most of the ground.
Natasha Mustapha-Scott, chief executive officer of the Manufacturers Association (TTMA), said her organisation welcomed the initiative and saw it as a mechanism "which is aimed at protecting our consumers from the entry of dangerous goods into the region." "Globalisation and trade liberalisation bring both benefits and risks, and regional governments must ensure that imported products are safe and ensure that those products that do not meet international standards and which are identified as unsafe, are intercepted before harm is done to consumers," she said. Model consumer protection drafted by the Caricom secretariat and fine-tuned for domestic application is said to be bound for parliament here and regional training has already been conducted in inspection and enforcement. Instruction for national focal points in using the system has also been executed. There exists a longstanding Consumer Protection and Safety Act in T&T, but activists believe the need for review and reform is long overdue.
The Consumer Affairs Division of the Ministry of Legal Affairs already applies a well-developed local complaints system. Regional officials, however, believe Carrex can lead to more efficient redress overseas especially, but not exclusively, in the case of Caricom manufacturers. The system is modelled after the European Union (EU) rapid alert mechanism, Rapex, which was set up to alert member states to risks associated with products marketed and sold within Europe. Barbados' Minister of Commerce and Trade, Haynesley Benn, has said Carrex provides Caricom with the ability "to harmonise and manage the actions within member states, with respect to market surveillance." Mustapha-Scott, however, noted: "Given that individual governments have limited power to regulate the movement of dangerous products, the regional scope of this initiative will allow for greater monitoring and prevention of ... (dangerous) goods entering the Caricom market." The online mechanism to implement Carrex is already in place and the Business Guardian has been able to review the system.
The bare-bones homepage at: www.carrex.caricom.org, makes navigation easy, but does not address several key points. For example, the Web site does not mention the fact that Carrex is applicable only to complaints or alerts relative to non-food products. As is the case in the EU, the system does not apply to food or pharmaceutical and medical products. The Web site also guarantees confidentiality, but there are mandatory information fields that can have the impact of reducing the willingness of whistle-blowers within manufacturing and distributive operations who might detect design and engineering flaws. Brown also believes the project "cannot be effected without considerable public awareness." She said it is also a good opportunity to trigger some serious consumer organising and advocacy, especially using the new networking technology.