Consumers have had a horrible year Consumer Concerns
Stabroek News
January 11, 2004

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The year 2003 was annus horribilis for consumers. The year began with senior citizens, dismayed and distressed, traipsing around in search of pension books. Was it not known that on the first working day of each month thousands of senior citizens went to cash their vouchers? They waited and waited and goodness knows who helped them in the interval. It took months for all the books to be delivered. When the books were ready, there was no money at the GPO for payment.

Consumers who had earlier been granted water relief had to wait until December to know whether relief would be continued or not.

We learnt of the scam at the Guyana Post Office. In August the news broke: that 13 postal workers had been fired and 14 reinstated. We were sinking deeper into the mire. The return of the 14 workers caused some concern: How were consumers to be assured that their mail with cheques and postal orders would be safe? Reports of losses were already being made.

The budget brought little relief for consumers. The income-tax threshold was raised from $216,000 to $240, 000. The withholding tax was increas-ed. We learnt from others that the withholding tax had been intended as a temporary measure and should be re-moved, not increas-ed. A 10 per cent tax was imposed on all domestic telephone calls.

No discussion was held with consumers before the budget presentation.

The utilities took over. On 19 March, Guyana Water Incorporated announced tariff increases retroactive to January 1, 2003. Guyana Power and Light announced on 18 April an increase in rates for electricity when bills were issued in April. The new rate for the lower category was advertised as $38.13 but the company has been charging $39.54. The rate for consumers using less than 100 KWH per month was thus increased from $25.68 in January 2002.

The Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Co. Ltd continued to offer new services to consumers and forgot its commitment to establish land lines for all consumers who wanted fixed lines.

In August came the Fiscal Enactments Act which substantially increased licences for professionals and placed a tax on consumers who used these services. The expectation is that consumers will report to the Inland Revenue Department the payments they have made to these professionals. It is said to be the beginning of value-added tax (VAT) but VAT is supposed to take the place of other indirect taxes and consumers can see no benefit as prices continue to rise.

In December came the news of the HPIC relief, which has been described as the best Christmas gift for Guyana. But the gift has a cost and consumers are paying for it. "The relief on debt service will not free up resources to be spent on wages but rather for increased spending on the social sectors, as stipulated by the international lending agencies" (Gitanjali Singh, SN 20.12.03). The money will go to health care, education, housing and water. Who will oversee that the money is evenly distributed? Will money for education be spent on buildings which will have no qualified teachers? How will the small man benefit?

The question to be answered: Who is running this country? Parliament is just a rubber-stamp. The reader may be interested to read Raphael Trotman's column in the Stabroek News of 20 December under the caption 'Who is running the country?'

While there has been success in resisting two demands, there may be greater success in soliciting the support of consumers. Dr Cheddi Jagan did on one occasion remark that support of the citizens of the country would help him in his dealings with the international lending agencies.

For consumers to struggle out of this quagmire, there is urgent need for new non-political leaders and advisers. It is possible that professionals and business persons are inhibited by the income-tax provision which allows the commissioner general of the Guyana Revenue Authority to assess income tax of individuals and also provides that the assessment cannot be appealed until the money assessed is lodged. Remove this provision of lodging the money before appeal and let us see whether it will free up more open discussion.

The crime situation must be mentioned. There has been an increase in the murder of wives. One can imagine the terror of women who now live under constant threat from their partners. The Domestic Violence Act should be reviewed.

The commissioner general has stated that only lawyers and doctors are covered by the injunction on the Fiscal Enactments Act. All other professionals are required to pay the new licences as stipulated in the Fiscal Enactments Act.