House panel moves to provide more consumer protection

The House Committee on Trade and Industry has moved to make Republic Act (RA) No. 7581 or the Price Act of 1992 more attuned to the persisting COVID-19 pandemic.

In a virtual hearing, Valenzuela City Rep. Weslie Gatchalian carried a motion to consolidate four measures that seek to provide additional protection to consumers in the pricing of commodities.

"Hearing no objections, the motion to consolidate House Bills (HB) 1278, 2662, 5178, and 6658 is carried," he said, acting on a motion made by Quezon City Rep. Bong Suntay.

The latest bill filed in the bunch, HB No. 6658, declares personal protective equipment (PPE), face masks, safety goggles, and medical devices as prime commodities which may be subject to price ceilings, particularly in times of outbreaks and epidemics, pandemics, or public health emergencies. It was authored by Deputy Speaker and CIBAC party-list Rep. Eddie Villanueva.

"A few days after the first confirmed COVID-19 patient in the Philippines was reported on Jan. 30, 2020, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) found that three profiteering pharmacies in Cebu City were selling overpriced surgical and N95 masks by as much as 35 percent. Worse, even foreign nationals took advantage of the situation to profit from (it). For example, five foreign nationals were arrested by the Manila Police District for selling masks higher than the suggested retail price (SRP) set by DTI," Villanueva said in the explanatory note of the bill.

The process of consolidation will result to a substitute bill representing all four measures. The substitute bill would then be approved by the committee.

Gatchalian carried a separate motion to incorporate amendments proposed by the DTI to the 28-year-old Price Act. DTI Undersecretary Ruth Castelo presented these suggested changes to the law during the hearing.

Among the sought amendments was a provision to "issue a suggested retail price to be used at any specific time for any or all basic necessities and prime commodities under its jurisdiction for the information and guidance of producers, manufacturers, traders, dealers, sellers, retailers, and consumers."

Basic commodities, Castelo said, are products deemed "necessary for survival" while prime commodities are products "we can do without, but we also need."

She also cited the need for a clearer definition of the suggested retail price or SRP, so that it may "refer to the price issued by the concerned implementing agency to be used as reference in the monitoring of prices."

Castelo was supposed to give recommendations as well in connection with prices of laptops, personal computers, and other devices and services needed for distance learning, which has become the norm for schools due to the pandemic. However, the DTI was not yet ready to do so.

"We have found out that there are several considerations that need to be done such as the determination of the specification required by the Department of Education, the specifications available in the market and the supply as well," she said.

"Secretary (Ramon) Lopez has not yet decided on this...the first step that needs to be done by the Secretary is he must declare laptop and other devices as either basic or prime before we can impose any price ceiling on these," she noted.

The DTI also batted for heftier fines under RA No.7581, specifically on price manipulation and the violation of price ceilings.

The agency proposed those found guilty of price manipulation will be slapped a fine of not less than P50,000 or more than P3 million (from the current range of P5,000 to P2 million). Price ceiling violators will be imposed a fine of not less than P50,000 or more than P2 million (from the current range of P5,000 to P1 million).