One consumer, a 40-year-old St Thomas mother who has been trying to complete a building project, tells the Jamaica Observer that she has been having a rough time juggling being a single parent and trying to complete the well needed construction project.
In 2021, the pressures caused by rising prices have “just kept on coming”, adding stress to already stretched resources, she lamented as she outlined how worsening inflation has been affecting her personally. In the last year prices have gone up by an average of 8.5 per cent — the biggest increase in eight years, prompting the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) to hike its benchmark interest rates from a historic low of 0.5 per cent to two per cent, with promises of more increases to pull back increases within a band of four per cent to six per cent.
The mother told Caribbean Business Report, “Everything seems to have risen in price...Ground produce prices...vegetables, fruits, starches such as yam...these have been steadily increasing this year. Also construction materials...lumber, cement, steel...it's really horrible.
“It's like we must not build...lumber has seen up to 120 per cent increase since February… there is no control of construction material in the market.”
While some of these prices have started to come down, others remain significantly higher than last year.
She said that these pressures are a source of worry, outlining, “They affect me because I can't afford to eat properly the required nutritional meals. I have to skip fruits and just eat the basics of carbs and protein. [The cost of] construction material [is] affecting home-building plans.”
Caribbean Business Report has also fielded concerns about the possibility of price gouging, which some believe is partly responsible for current price increases on goods in particular.
Dolsie Allen, CEO of the Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC), in response, told Caribbean Business Report, “The commission has investigated complaints made by the consumer about price gouging; however, to date, the commission has not found sufficient evidence to conclude that price gouging has taken place. The commission continues to encourage consumers to report any suspected instance of price gouging that they may encounter and provide the requisite evidence (receipts/invoices).”
Allen, though advising consumers to shop around, has attributed the worsening inflation to global pressures.
Price gouging occurs when a seller increases the prices of goods, services, or commodities to a level much higher than is considered reasonable or fair. How this is proven, especially amid current circumstances, is another matter.
Allen continued: “Jamaica has a market-driven economy. Currently, the global supply chain continues to experience disruptions. Markets have experienced labour and material shortages which have affected product availability for manufacturing and for finished goods.
“In addition, dislocations have been identified in the logistics chain namely the container market, ports, air cargo, shipping routes, trucking lines, railways and warehouses; the consequence of which has created delivery delays, order backlogs, shortages of key manufacturing components and an increase in transportation costs. All of these factors have led to an increase in consumer costs.”
“Unfortunately,” Allen added, “if the disruption in the global supply chain remains, it is expected that consumers will continue to experience increased costs.”
She noted, “Meetings have also been held with the Jamaica Chambers of Commerce to discuss concerns regarding possible price gouging and actions the trade could take to keep prices stable.”
However, she did not elaborate on what those actions might be.
The CAC is mandated by the Consumer Protection Act, 2004 (amended 2012) to promote and protect consumer interests as it relates to the supply of goods and the provision of services in order to ensure the protection of life, health and safety of consumers and others.
Allen told Caribbean Business Report that the CAC has actually increased surveillance since the onset of the novel coronavirus in Jamaica in March 2020.
As it relates to market surveillance, the CAC is empowered to: collect, compile and analyse information in relation to any trade or business; carry out, on its own initiative, such other investigations in relation to the availability of goods of any class or description.
Allen outlined, “The CAC has a price-monitoring programme where the agency consistently conducts monthly and annual price surveys on grocery and agricultural products, petrol products, banking rates and fees, hardware items and school textbooks.
“Since March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Jamaica, the CAC increased its surveillance by 80 per cent and this includes sanitation, hygiene & personal protective items, COVID-19 antigen and PCR tests; and during the first term of the 2020/2021 academic year, computer items such as laptops and tablets.”
The publication of information enables consumers to cross-check pricing. The information is published on the commission's website www.cac.gov.jm and social media pages on a monthly basis. On a monthly basis, the price of the basic food items and COVID laboratory tests and their locations are also published in local newspapers.
In addition to publishing prices, in conjunction with the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce (MIIC), the CAC has held meetings with the distributive and retail trade to discuss measures to keep prices stable, Allen said.
She says, meanwhile, that MIIC has consulted with the agencies responsible for executing the Consumer Protection Programme with a view to devising strategies /new initiatives to help consumers cope with rising prices. In December 2019, the CAC also launched its mobile application (CACApp) on which it posts grocery and petrol prices. The app can be downloaded on the Google Play store by both Apple and Android users.
The CAC has also increased its consumer education, to educate consumers as to actions they can take to stretch their disposable income. Among them, “Eating Right When Money Tight” (It should be noted that a booklet with budget friendly recipes was created and is available electronically free of cost on the commission's website; COVID-19 Lab Test Prices and Location; and Money Management in a pandemic media campaign.
Allen told the Caribbean Business Report, “We are also urging consumers to be vigilant, astute, aware and cautious when conducting business. They should:
• Make a budget.
• Do research on the product/company before purchasing.
• Check around for best prices – no impulsive buying.
• Check items for damage if possible before leaving the store.
• Ask about the store's return policy (if not written on the receipt). Get it in writing.
• Review contracts thoroughly before signing – ensuring that contract terms are understood.
• Ensure that what is written on the receipt is what you have purchased/received – material, the right brand, the correct size and colour etc.
• Ensure you get a proper receipt.