Allah swt states in the Holy Quran, an instance of the Prophet Shuaib (peace be upon him) who beseeches his people: “O my people! Give full measure and weigh with justice. Do not defraud people of their property, nor go about spreading corruption in the land.” (11:85)
Consumer rights and Duties of Corporations When corporations use deceptive marketing practices, unethical business practices like short-changing, lowering quality, selling faulty products, unprofessional customer service, etc, consumer rights are violated.
Why are consumer rights important? They are a means of protecting consumers from exploitation by corporations. Having consumer rights in place isn’t just helpful for consumers but also producers. It compels the latter to ensure quality standards and promotes competitiveness which benefits the overall economy. Consumer rights can be categorised into three rights:
- Right to be informed
- Right to choose
- Right to seek redressal for grievances
In India, the consumer rights movement first began in the 60s. It gradually led to the formation of COPRA – The Consumer Protection Act in 1986. A three-tiered quasi-judicial apparatus called Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission at the district, state, and national levels. The biggest class action lawsuit in the country (and of the world, at the time) was when the government of India filed a civil suit in the Bhopal civil court before a special court established for this purpose, seeking US$3 billion in compensation for the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. However, till today several victims have not got compensation. The issue of delay in court proceedings is something that is a major obstacle in ensuring and upholding consumer rights in India. Upgradation of court delays is a techno-bureaucratic administrative issue that will require strong policy action.
Consumer rights in the age of digital economy The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) recently released draft rules for influencer advertising and promotion on digital media platforms. With the rise of social media marketing and content creation, deceptive marketing by influencers has been a recurring issue. Influencers and content creators have repeatedly been embroiled in scandal after scandal related to undisclosed brand partnerships and being dishonest about a product’s real features to deceive viewers into favouring or patronising the brand in question. The biggest concern of consumer rights in the age of the digital economy is the question of data privacy. Surveillance capitalism and consumer rights A famous saying related to surveillance capitalism goes, “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product!” Shoshana Zuboff has described surveillance capitalism as an entity that trades in human futures. Big tech corporations have been accused of accumulating data on consumers without explicit consent and using algorithms to manipulate consumer behaviour. Seen this way, the data privacy concerns regarding surveillance capitalism are also a violation of consumer rights to be informed, to choose freely, and to seek grievance redressal.
Consumer rights and the gig economy After the increased privatisation of the Indian economy, the issue of consumer rights gained even more significance. From the perspective of consumer rights, even though privatisation has benefited consumers in various ways, its dark side concerning labour cannot be ignored. “Who are they to decide my life? Why did they [platforms] put that power in their hands?” Shaik Salauddin demands. A gig worker asks this question about the rating system of delivery apps like Ola, Uber, Swiggy, Zomato, etc. Purportedly, the rating system in delivery apps is designed to help customers give feedback about the quality of service rendered. However, this system, conceived as a mechanism to maintain consumer rights, actually comes at the cost of endangering the rights of the gig workers on whom they’re based. The rating system lets the user of a particular service delivery app rate various aspects of the gig worker’s performance. Gig workers have complained and protested against this system, as it has been used by customers to exploit their services. Even the slightest deficiency in their performance, even if due to factors not under their control, has been penalised by low ratings. Low ratings translate to fewer opportunities and many a time, even loss of livelihood. This is also an affront to their dignity. It also compels us to ponder over the problematic societal mindset which considers workers and labourers and their labour as “dispensable.” The conversation around consumer rights in India throws up several interesting insights into the issue of class consciousness and worker’s rights. Consumer rights are necessary to protect consumers from the exploitation of corporations. But this is where class consciousness comes into play. Is it possible to ensure that in the process of safeguarding our rights as a consumer, other people’s rights as workers aren’t becoming collateral damage?
Conclusion Some argue that worker-controlled economies or at least better-organised worker unions will go a long way in holding corporations accountable both for the exploitation of labour rights as well as upholding consumers’ rights. However, the fact remains that in either scenario, as long as there is a lack of the concept of Divine Accountability, the issue will remain unresolved. Allah swt states in the Holy Quran, an instance of the Prophet Shuaib (peace be upon him) who beseeches his people: “O my people! Give full measure and weigh with justice. Do not defraud people of their property, nor go about spreading corruption in the land.” (11:85) Unless there is a deep-seated sense of Godconsciousness in the hearts and minds of those who produce goods and render services, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which the modern economic system is exploitative not just in the “material” sense but also in the spiritual sense.