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Wither consumer rights in Zim?

Is there even such a thing as consumer rights in Zimbabwe? Do we have a Consumer Rights Act? Who is our active and visible consumer rights watchdog? The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, falling under ZimTrade, if my memory serves me well, used to be one such watchdog.

GLORIA NDORO-MKOMBACHOTO

But nowadays, they are conspicuously invisible by their deafening silence or perhaps low-key activities, whatever they are.
The universal truth is, when you live in a space where there is a general trampling of citizens’ primary rights, the last thing any level-headed and self-preserving person would dare do is talk about the existence or not of a consumer rights movement in Zimbabwe.

A significant number of families in Zimbabwe are depending on these remittances by family members in the diaspora, income which, if not received at all or not on time, would cause untold suffering.

So last week I accompanied my frail 86-year-old aunt to go and collect her money from a Western Union point operating within a supermarket at a shopping centre in the Avenues. When we arrived, the queue was as long as from here to Timbuktu. Fully mindful of her senior citizen status, my aunt suggested we go to the top of the queue so that she could get served without delay. She was given a seat because it was apparent she would not be able to stand for very long.

After waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, when it was just 20 minutes (queues are a waste of valuable time and I do not understand why people choose to stew in them, waiting), an animated guard announced before my aunt could be served that the money had run out and therefore everyone should come tomorrow. I held my tongue but quietly swore.

Those behind us were visibly upset, shouting on top of their voices and threatening to beat up the guard who now had his tail firmly aligned in between his legs. It was then that we realised that some people had been waiting in the queue for more than three hours.

Surely, a well-organised machinery would have established the needs of the first 20 or 30 people in the queue, taking into account senior citizens who are allowed to jump queues and advised to rest that the funds would run out after say the 24th person, depending of course on the size of their withdrawals. It is common sense. It is fair. It is caring for the consumer and it is progressive.

After we left, we visited three more Western Union sites in the Harare city centre. They were all closed before their normal close of business time. They had run out of money. My aunt advised that it was not unusual for that to happen, particularly at both the end and beginning of the month.

It was heart-breaking to see many go home empty-handed and gut-wrenching to realise for the first time that when I am unavailable, which I always am, my arthritic-legged 78-year-old mum and frail aunt go through this ordeal. Who is protecting the aged consumers against disorganised service providers? And, what about the rest? Many who were in the abandoned queue complained to the guard that they did not have transport money to go back home and were hoping to collect their remittances on that day.

Another complained about the landlord definitely shutting them out that night. If this kind of scenario plays out at Western Union outlets across Harare every month, someone, please help me understand where the bottleneck is? What are the consumer rights under the law?

In another incident that same Friday of November 3, a promise had been made by a satisfied customer overseas to a gentleman from Chivero who had successfully completed a fencing job at the client’s property. The promise was that the receiver would collect $385 cash from Western Union as the final payment.

The receiver made sure he was in Harare by mid-morning. On his way to the Western Union office in Samora Machel Avenue, he received notification from EcoCash (who hardly have cash at all nowadays), that they were in receipt of his money.
When the receiver got to the Western Union office, he was advised that the money had already been collected by EcoCash. Gobsmacked, he enquired as to how and why. He was advised the sender had opted that the transfer of the $385 be credited to his EcoCash account.

The sender, who gave permission for this story to be shared here confirmed that this was a barefaced lie. The sender summarised what happened as follows: “… my local UK agent asked me for the receiver’s telephone number, because the transaction would not go through without the receiver’s number. I gave her the number believing it was probably for notification purposes. I did not at any point opt for what they are calling the EcoCash wallet.

We pointed out that this transaction was meant to be no different from the ones we have carried out during the past decade — a cash pickup from Western Union agents in Zimbabwe. My local agent said she could not void the transaction because the money was registering as having been collected. Western Union office in the UK were not helpful either…. In the meantime EcoCash acknowledged receipt of the money. But no, they cannot pay cash because they don’t have it.”

This is the long and short of what happened. Econet has published a notice on their website of a Ecocash-Western Union link up.

Part of the notice reads, “…Consumers in Zimbabwe who use the EcoCash mobile money service now have the option of receiving a Western Union Money Transfer® transaction on their mobile phones.  Consumers can receive funds from money transfer transactions initiated at www.westernunion.com transactional websites in 23 countries, or Western Union agent locations around the world.

EcoCash customers in Zimbabwe can use their mobile phones to direct funds they are about to receive to their personal account with EcoCash mobile wallet.” This is supposed to be a choice. But what is actually happening is, when Western Union asks for the receiver’s number at the time of sending the money and when Western Union notes it’s an Econet number, they are channelling — without the senders’ authorisation — the transfer to EcoCash, a perplexing development because most EcoCash points across Harare city and across the country have no cash. In this particular case, Western Union failed in its fiduciary responsibility, its promise, to deliver the US$ cash to the receiver.

The sender tried to raise this issue as a case of fraud in the UK and eventually gave up. In Zimbabwe, cash is king. US$ cash is everything. With a bit of networking and good luck, you can easily multiply every $1 to $1,70, without shedding a drop of sweat.
In this case, what is the senders’ and receivers’ recourse under the law? Who is protecting Zimbabweans against powerful institutions? Who fights for the voiceless, defenceless and the helpless? Where is the Consumer Rights Watchdog to protect consumer interests?

The lesson to take from this scenario is clear. As a remittance sender, when asked for the number of the receiver by Western Union, perhaps it is wiser to issue a TelOne, Telecel or a NetOne number. That way, maybe the receiver will receive their cash in the desired currency of choice — the US$.

In yet another case, a visiting Zimbabwe student who is not registered for EcoCash transactions received $15 from an EcoCash sender. She then decided to visit EcoCash to register for the service.

Apparently the service cannot be activated for the first time if there is money in the wallet. After visiting three EcoCash sites with no cash, the fourth one had cash but for her to cash out the $15, the charges were $4,50, a whooping 30%. Where are the regulatory authorities to safeguard the interests of consumers? Wither consumer rights in Zimbabwe.

 Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto is an entrepreneur and a regional enterprise development consultant. Her experience spans a period of over 25 years. She can be contacted at totemshumba@gmail.com

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