Every Filipino Consumer’s Ally
Usec. Ruth Castelo, who heads the Consumer Protection Group (CPG) of DTI, provides an explanation
regarding price increases.
By Camille F. Cabal
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROMEO S. PERALTA, JR.
More and more consumers are alarmed by reports of price increases for various goods, including sugar and salt. Although price adjustments are natural occurrences in the market, Filipino consumers are concerned about how they can keep up with the rate of price increases.
Undersecretary Ruth Castelo, who heads the Consumer Protection Group (CPG) of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), provides an explanation regarding these price increases.
ADDRESSING PRICE HIKES
Consumers typically demand answers when they hear news about price increases, especially for basic necessities—essential items that are needed to support life and health, and prime commodities that are not basic but are also essential to consumers, such as sugar and salt. Castelo has stepped forward to reassure them that there is no salt shortage in the country. She continues by stating that the reason for the price hike is that the salt industry has not seen a price movement in the past five to six years. Thus, she recommended to the DTI Secretary the increase in the suggested retail price (SRP) for salt. She did, however, warn of a potential shortage if the issue of lack of land for salt production is not addressed. Land used by salt farmers and producers is being converted into residential areas. She adds that additional land for salt production, when complemented with improved technologies, will save both the country and the industry from a supply shortage.
For sugar, DTI shares that they applied the standard strategy of limiting the purchase of one kilogram per buyer to accommodate everyone’s demand. Castelo believes that the current supply will last until the end of the year.
When asked about alleged sugar hoarding in warehouses, Castelo clarifies that not all warehouses holding hundreds of sacks of sugar are committing an offense. With the inter-agency Sub-Task Group on Economic Intelligence under the Task Group on Food Security, she mentions that they inspected warehouses to ensure that they were legally permitted to stock such quantities of sugar. Upon inspection, they discovered that most of the sugar that the sub task group found is industrial sugar intended for the food manufacturing industry. This includes sugar intended for the confectionary, bakery, cereal, dairy, and bottling industries. She claims that suppliers are permitted to stock sugar as long as they have the necessary permits and the sugar is allocated for food manufacturing.
With the rise of new technologies, DTI is confronted with the problem of widespread scams carried out through short messaging services (SMS), which promise profits or income that seem too good to be true or instantaneous. Castelo finds it unfortunate that there are still people who believe in these kinds of fraudulent strategies. This is why DTI, through the CPG, has intensified its campaigns to remind people how to see “red flags” and when to back away from a purchase of goods or services.
Currently, DTI operates a nationwide network of Diskwento Caravans and rolling stores that connect sellers and consumers. Some caravans are done in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture (DA) and in partnership with micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) suppliers. This program aims to provide small businesses with a market to whom they can sell their products while allowing consumers to purchase basic commodities at very reasonable prices. “These caravans are participated in by food and non-food manufacturers, whose rates are at the manufacturer’s price. There is no more additional profit margin, so consumers can purchase it at a lower rate,” Castelo expounds.
To continually remind consumers of their rights and relay important information to them, the agency also offers Consumer Care webinars on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Hindi pwedeng ang consumer ay hindi nabibigyan ng tamang impormasyon sa mga produkto o services that they purchase (Consumers should not be misinformed about the products and services that they purchase),” Castelo shares, saying that their endeavor has been ongoing since 2020.
In addition to offering online consumer education seminars, the agency, through the Fair Trade Enforcement Bureau (FTEB), monitors online and offline consumer transactions. Castelo encourages the general public to constantly inspect the goods they purchase and search for the Import Commodity Clearance (ICC) label. This serves as a guide and confirmation that the products have been examined by DTI and are safe for them to use and consume. She continues by saying that, given the proliferation of online sellers, consumers must be wise enough to check prices. When an online vendor hides their prices, that is a red flag, a warning sign. Castelo advises customers to ask the seller why prices are not posted or file a report with the DTI if they experience this. According to Castelo, one of the biggest challenges in consumer protection is when people file complaints but do not finish the process. “A challenge we commonly face is when consumers come to DTI to file a complaint but do not pursue the case. Sometimes they even refuse to sign complaints. For us to be able to resolve the issue, we need a written document duly signed by the complainant,” Castelo says, urging consumers to cooperate with DTI by pursuing their complaints.
IMPORTATION, EXPORTATION, AND COMPETITION
Importation has long been an integral component of the supply and demand chain. This protects the country from running out of supplies while preventing the occurrence of panic buying, which could lead to further price increases. Castelo explains that the DTI also supports the duties of the Tariff Commission when importing commodities to ensure that the country only imports consumable supply and does not overimport. She emphasizes that importation must be regulated; if not, the welfare of local suppliers will be compromised. “Of course, we also prioritize local production because of the jobs it generates,” Castelo says. We have the Go Lokal, Buy Lokal program to encourage consumers to patronize products produced locally by FIlipino entrepreneurs.
Regarding exporting, Castelo emphasizes that the government must promote and expand the various manufacturing industries in the country so that excess domestic production can be utilized for export. Fortunately, she says that DTI Secretary Alfredo E. Pascual is currently working on this. When asked for her opinion on allowing foreign ownership of businesses, the DTI undersecretary expresses that foreign firms may enter, own, and operate businesses in the country under the new Retail Trade Law, which specifies the required amount of investment for various industries. She believes that this will foster a healthy level of competition that will ultimately benefit consumers. “Competition will bring about benefits in terms of quality and prices of the products. If we have more players in the market, prices and quality of the product or service will improve,” Castelo says. While the DTI is committed to protecting the rights of consumers, the agency also reminds consumers to do their share. Castelo encourages everyone to be vigilant, at the same time perform their responsibilities as consumers. Taking action by filing complaints and requests for reviews is a big step in ensuring that businesses are mindful of the quality of products and services that they deliver to the consumer.