x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A needed lesson in consumer rights

Is Dh10 too much for a bottle of local water in a restaurant? Consumers in Abu Dhabi do have some rights in situations like this one, but too often residents and tourists alike are left in the dark about how to make an official complaint.

In December 2009, the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development urged patrons in the capital to report restaurants that were trying to impose illegal service charges. If the establishments refused to remove the charges from the bill, customers had the right to file a complaint. Sadly, it is a law that continues to be ignored by restaurants with many customers none the wiser.

At the time, the Minister of Economy declared the service charges were "illegitimate commercial practices that lead to exploitation and higher prices for the consumer" and declared them to be "in violation of consumer-protection law". It is worth noting that the restrictions did not apply to restaurants licensed by the various tourist authorities, which includes the majority of outlets in hotels and private clubs.

But now it seems that even those are coming under increasing scrutiny for bending, if not clearly breaking, those protection laws. As The National reports today, restaurants across the UAE are being accused of overcharging customers with massive mark-ups for local brands of bottled water like Masafi and Arwa, or offering only expensive imported brands. In most countries, free tap water would be available.

While charging premium prices for water in higher-end restaurants is expected, customers complain that it is the profit margin that is unjustifiable, and in many cases they are not provided a cheaper option anyway. It is a complaint supported by the Ministry of Economy.

"We have a hotline that consumers should be using, to tell us when they are charged Dh10 for a bottle of water," said Dr Hashim Al Nuaimi, the ministry's head of consumer protection. That number, by the way, is 600 522225.

Of course, the consequences of such practices go beyond mere mark-ups on water bottles. Often tourists and residents alike are unaware of the country's consumer laws, or where to lodge complaints against establishments that infringe on their rights.

In this regard, authorities should shoulder some of the responsibility by providing more avenues for reporting bad practices, and by providing customers a more comprehensive list of their rights, whether through awareness campaigns or consumer-protection websites.

The UAE has the highest per capita consumption of bottled water in the world. There's no reason to swallow such unfair practices.