DUBAI // Allowing people to take class-action lawsuits against companies they believe have been negligent would be a boost for consumer rights, a leading advocate says.
Speaking on the first day of the Dubai World Conference for Consumer Rights yesterday, Ralph Nader, the renowned US consumer advocate, said allowing collective action was an important step in building confidence.
"For consumers to be able to take class actions, as well as having consumer-advocacy groups, would help to strengthen the relationship they have with government," the former Green Party US presidential candidate said.
"As well as this, having more widely accessible information on pricing would also be good."
Mr Nader praised the Ministry of Economy's decision to fix prices on food and other daily essentials to keep prices stable and prevent overcharging.
The ministry runs price-fixing campaigns each year during Ramadan, with fines handed out to supermarkets and stores that charge more.
"This is the right thing to do because we are talking about the most important things, like food and water," Mr Nader said.
"It can be a temporary thing but it's to the benefit of the consumer, because it prevents people from manipulating prices and making things more expensive."
In his speech, he said governments could play an important role by controlling the price of commodities, particularly food, water, pharmaceuticals and other essentials, where prices can jump dramatically due to speculators.
But this has to be done in a smart way, Mr Nader said.
"In 1999 Mexico ended 25 years of regulated corn," he said. "However, prices soared, which caused social unrest."
Sami Al Qamzi, director general of Dubai's Department of Economic Development (Ded), said the biggest challenge facing consumer rights was awareness.
"We expect the consumer sector to grow by about 12 per cent annually, but to have this we need a good relationship between consumers, businesses and the Government," Mr Al Qamzi said.
"But for that to continue people need to be confident when they buy something that they will be protected if something goes wrong.
"That's why we have had campaigns highlighting what people can do if they feel there is a problem.
"We are coordinating with the Ministry of Economy and the Ded's commercial compliance and consumer protection sector to see where complaints have been made by consumers and take action is necessary."
Awareness is also vital to prevent online shoppers from falling foul of fraudulent websites.
Terry Jones, the founder of Travelocity.com and chairman of Kayak.com, told the conference consumers should stick with sites that have been given positive reviews by other customers.
Mr Jones warned that it was almost impossible to have a completely safe shopping environment online, but steps such as increasing regulation would help to weed out scammers.
"As well as that, companies themselves can act by having encrypted customer data and separating the personal data and credit-card information of customers," he said. "That way it would be harder for people to access it.
"If as a company that is not something you can or want to do, then you have no business being online."
Companies were collecting large amounts of data from their customers on a daily basis, from their shopping habits to credit card details, Mr Jones said.
"I think regulation of how that data is used is important to consider," he said.
The three-day conference ends tomorrow.