Saree Aongsomwang, who as a nurse witnessed the lack of consumer protection in Thailand's health care system, is gathering the country's consumers into a broad and powerful network.
The New Idea
Saree sees a tremendous need to improve consumer protection in Thailand, where under-regulated industries yield substandard, even unsafe, products and services. She uses print, television, and radio to reach the Thai public, providing a forum for information exchange among consumers nationwide. Her organization conducts independent product research, exposes false advertising schemes used to hook customers, presents case studies that point to consumer pitfalls, and insures representation for individuals who seek reimbursement or compensation. By encouraging consumers to work with existing public agencies, such as Thailand's Food and Drug Administration, Saree is pressuring the government to protect citizens by implementing and enforcing industry regulations and improving existing systems of redress for violated or harmed consumers. Furthermore, she is encouraging Thais to vote with their money, to make informed consumer choices that sustain responsible, ethical companies and ultimately improve production standards. According to Saree, companies will shy away from putting substandard or unsafe products on the market, as they know an alert, savvy consumer group is watching them.
Thailand lacks the kind of effective public controls that insure that consumer products meet public safety standards. Producers make and market products that turn a profit, but often at the expense of health and safety. Many companies tell prospective buyers what they want to hear and no more, even–or especially–if using a product could put people at risk. In the absence of controls and reliable, accessible product information, even attentive buyers fall prey to gimmicks, mislabeling, and false representation of products. Graver still, violations by doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies can result in injury or death. Notoriously, some international pharmaceutical companies test prescription drugs on people living in developing countries with under-regulated markets. Thais unwittingly become guinea pigs for drugs destined for richer patients in countries armed with more aggressive industry regulations, stronger consumer protection laws, and better engaged consumer advocacy groups. Mechanisms for redress and compensation exist but are inconsistent and not always effective.
Though things have improved in recent years, the laws and government agencies devoted to consumer rights are still cumbersome, and many consumers do not know the first step in using them. Others lack confidence in the system, and prefer not to entangle themselves in protracted compensation claims. The Consumer Protection Act of 1979, the cornerstone for consumer protection in Thailand, is rarely enforced to the benefit of consumers and most claims by individuals result in minimal, if any, compensation. As a result, Thais suffer a sense of powerlessness in the face of industrial or institutional giants. In the absence of sustained pressure from consumers and effective public controls, egregious violations of consumer rights continue.
Saree's route to strengthening consumer protection in Thailand has three approaches: helping consumers who have been deceived or harmed seek compensation; gathering and disseminating information useful to consumers in protecting themselves; and advocating policy changes through a strong, effective national network of consumer protection organizations. Since its launch in 1994, Saree's Foundation For Consumers has helped violated or injured consumers by providing information and counseling. Open during weekday business hours, FFC's Consumer Complaint and Legal Assistance Center consults, usually by phone, with consumers seeking compensation for faulty products, breaches of housing contracts, violations of public health standards, and myriad other complaints. FFC staff then determine the next steps based on the nature of the complaint, background of the caller, and other variables.
Aided by volunteer professionals in a range of fields, they help callers navigate the existing systems of redress, which may involve linking with one of FFC's volunteer lawyers. In addition, they connect individuals with similar grievances against the same company, helping them work together. In all cases, FFC staff advise consumers to make the existing channels of redress work, thus strengthening the system. In 2000, FFC assisted with 330 complaints in a variety of areas, including property, public health, and production standards. Building on such complaints, as well as on consumer issues in the news, Saree uses print, television, and radio to reach Thai people.
Since 1994, FFC has produced Smart Buyer, Thailand's only publication devoted to consumer interests and protection. Published bimonthly, the eighty-page magazine provides such information as product safety and quality indexes, case studies of consumer violations, purchasing tips for savvy buyers, policy information relating to consumer protection, and advice to readers on advancing compensation claims. In addition, the magazine publicizes other forums for discussing consumer issues, including FFC's weekly television and radio programs. Today, subscribers total 3,500 individuals and 6,500 organizations–including schools, civil society organizations, and health care centers.
Subscriber fees cover production costs and the salaries of Smart Buyer's staff of four, with all profits reinvested in FFC's activities.While Smart Buyer gets critical information to subscribers, Saree has taken additional steps to reach a broader audience and to encourage interaction among consumers. Since March 2000, FFC has produced a weekly one-hour television program to inform consumers and engage them in dialogue around a range of topics. Aired every Friday evening, "Assembly of Consumers" typically opens with a case study, produced with the help of volunteer journalists, engineers, public health workers, and other professionals. Moderated by FFC staff, a live, call-in forum for viewers who have questions or comments follows in the show's second half. Depending on the visibility of the topic, between 60-100 viewers join the live discussion. "Assembly of Consumers" is broadcast to viewers nationwide and is hosted by Channel 11, which offers free time to Saree and her staff.
For viewers who wish to pursue a topic still further, they have another chance. Aired on national radio every Saturday morning, FFC's one-hour program follows a similar format to "Assembly of Consumers" and typically picks up with the same, or a related, topic. The second portion of the radio program offers call-in opportunities to listeners, and guest speakers and experts provide background and context and address questions from callers.
To strengthen the network of consumers and organizations interested in advancing consumer protection in Thailand, Saree assembled the Confederation of Consumer Organizations of Thailand (CCOT) in July 2000. The group is comprised of twenty-one member organizations from around the country that represent such areas as labor, farmers, health, and women's rights. Members convene monthly to review successes and challenges, and outline next steps in promoting consumer education and protection through an existing local network that reaches consumers at the grassroots level.
To date, successes include establishing the Committee of Health Development at a district level, working through local and provincial administrations to establish a policy for the disabled, and lobbying local shop-owners to refrain from buying–and selling–unsafe products.
Saree grew up in the south of Thailand, the daughter of rubber plantation owners. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her mother to raise six children and manage the plantation. During her childhood, Saree was inspired by her mother's generosity and fair management practices. Most plantations in the south welcomed immigrant labor, as immigrants would work for next to nothing. Like other rubber plantation owners, Saree's mother hired Burmese and other foreign workers; however, she paid them the prevailing wage, refusing to take advantage of them. Influenced by leaders of the democratic movement of the late 1970s, when Saree was a university student, she became involved in politics, an interest that culminated in her election as vice-president of the student body. She was on track to becoming a nurse, though, and after graduating with a nursing degree in 1981, she went to work in a hospital. There, she saw the loopholes in the health care system but felt poorly positioned to address them in a systemic, proactive way.
After three years, she returned to school, this time to pursue a master's degree in social and community development at Thailand's leading public policy school, Thammasat University. Following graduate school, Saree took a job with the Coordinating Committee for Primary Health Care of Thai NGOs (CCPN), a coordinating body of health care organizations. While CCPN was effective in introducing policy reforms in health care, the organization did not directly address the public, an audience Saree saw as critical to improving not only health care rights, but consumer rights more broadly.
Three years after joining CCPN, Saree proposed the formation of Foundation for Consumers to work with people, as well as policy makers, for the protection of consumer rights. She manages the organization from its office in Bangkok.