Attorney-General Sayed-Khaiyum’s Address at the 34th ISO/COPOLCO Meeting

Bula Vinaka and Good morning.

This is a significant moment for Fiji, as we are the first nation in the Pacific Region to host the ISO/COPOLCO meeting. This meeting, apart from discussing pertinent global consumer protection issues, will also provide you with the opportunity to better understand the challenges of small islands nations like Fiji.

With modernised protection laws, institutional structures, and a representative consumer body, Fiji has set the pace for the Pacific in the area of consumer protection.  Extensive studies in the region indicate that most Pacific Islands countries do not — they do not — have basic standards and conformance laws to address the issues and the needs of consumers. Since 2009, as PS highlighted, the Bainimarama Government has amended and introduced over 212 laws to update the archaic provisions that were in place since the colonial era. The revamping of our laws also included increased consumer protection.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world of commerce is changing at a rapid pace, especially with the rise of IT and digital consumer practices. For example, we here in Fiji are increasing the liberalization of the telecommunications sector. So we now have more than one player in the market. Of course, there are many upsides to this because consumers are now able to get text messages for $0.01 per text, where previously it was about $0.50 or $1.00. But as the same time, as the CEO of the Consumer Council of Fiji will tell you, it is does create new issues, too, in terms of monitoring, and in terms of getting consumers the type of protection they need.

Increases in cross-border trade, coupled with aggressive marketing strategies of multinational firms, have increasingly challenged our consumers to make informed choices when buying goods and services. Some of these challenges are caused by fraudulent marketing practices, the absence of laws, and the sale of counterfeit goods.

The spread of counterfeit goods has become a global phenomenon in recent years and the range of goods subject to infringement has increased significantly. According to estimates by the Counterfeiting Intelligence Bureau (CIB) of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), counterfeit goods make up a healthy percentage of world trade.

Counterfeiting and piracy affects huge assortments of consumer goods, ranging from apparel and footwear, to medicines and industrial machines.

This brings us to the theme of our event: “How do Consumers Know What they are Getting?” This question is both topical and relevant, particularly for the developing Pacific Island Countries (PICs), including Fiji. Why? As goods move freely around the world today, the Pacific region has been an easy target for traders exporting low cost, sub-standard, and counterfeit products. This makes modern standards regulations and consumer protection laws even more vital. The Pacific region can benefit greatly from the ideas developed through ISO workshops such as this, and numerous others, to incorporate ‘best practices’ into their own laws and regulations.

Ladies and gentlemen, I also need to ask, and urge you to consider in deliberations, why these goods are so easily peddled. It is not just an issue of unscrupulous companies and marketing tactics, but it is also an issue of enforcement, adequate resources, and — of course — poverty.

Let me explain. Many countries adopt laws that are sometimes irrelevant to their jurisdiction, with penalties that are inappropriate. In these cases, enforcement also becomes difficult.

In Fiji, for example, we have adopted laws from Australia and various other jurisdictions. However, these laws have been drafted for the specific needs of those jurisdictions, meaning every provision of these laws will not necessarily be appropriate for Fiji.

Let me elaborate even further. The Land Transport Act, for example, created a new set of laws for enforcement of policing vehicles, standards for vehicles, speeding, and the imposing of fines if you are not wearing your seatbelts. Now, if there is an $80 fine in Australia for not wearing a seatbelt and that law is brought over to Fiji completely in its entirety, an $80 fine in Fiji for someone who is earning $150 per week, is more than 50% of their income.

So what does that mean? It means that it leaves room open for bribery and corruption. These are some of the hardcore realities that we need to be aware of. That when applying laws, when putting in place provisions, they need to be tailored for that particular jurisdiction.

And, indeed, when the Bainimarama Government was appointed, the first thing it did was to reduce the penalty for seatbelt infringement. Because it led to corruption. If I get pulled up for not wearing a seatbelt and I know by paying the fine that would mean my spouse and children not getting to eat for 3 days, I would be very desperate. And the person trying to enforce that law will also know that I am very desperate.

Sometimes laws are obviously present, and penalty provisions are appropriate, but enforcement is difficult due to lack of expertise, lack of funds, and – of course – policing.

So on paper it may be good. On paper, we can stand up in international forums and say we have laws and that Fiji is great, or that country “X” is great, but if you aren’t able to police the laws, then they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. And that’s the reality.

And I think this is why we all need to collaborate and work together with different jurisdictions – recognizing the strengths and weakness of our jurisdictions, and see how we can best assist one another.

In Fiji, for example, the issue of copyright, or piracy of audiovisual recordings has been an issue. So what has been done? We have, in recent times, reversed the burden of proof. So this potentially means people accused of piracy have to prove that their products are originals. This obviously makes the process easier with respect to prosecutions.

Poverty, or local income levels, and obviously savvy marketing tactics also play a synergistic role. Let me explain. In first world countries or OECD countries, the chances of consumers with access to cheaper counterfeit or non-compliant goods is much lower than in countries where there are higher levels of poverty.

And this is a reality. And this is what you need to discuss, and how we should address it. We need to be cognizant of the fact that not all jurisdictions are the same. That all jurisdictions do not all have the same capacity – not just in terms of enforcement, but also with consideration that consumers in those countries do not necessarily have the same financial capacities to resist purchasing more affordable, counterfeit products.

Demand creates supply.

I strongly urge you, in your discussions, to consider the application of standards and regulations that are customized to meet the specific needs of the people, businesses, and other stakeholders in your respective regions and countries. “One size fits all”, as I’ve said, is not a solution. In this way, you can ensure the scarce resources that are available for standards development are directed to laws, reforms, and creation of groups that derive the greatest benefit for all citizens.

The Fijian Government, ladies and gentlemen, is committed to improving the legal regime relating to consumer protection, and the development of standards. We look forward to your input and, indeed, seek to adhere to international benchmarks. We are also committed to the education of both consumers and businesses, and as you see there are so many business houses present here today. After all, without awareness, without understanding, all our work would be futile.

I wish you well in your deliberations today. And, as I’ve said to those visiting our shores, I invite you to enjoy our Fijian hospitality.

Thank you.

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