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Caught price gouging!

HeadlineCaught price gouging!

Photo: Lennox Nicholson, Controller of Supplies

59 out of 112 stores countrywide ticketed for price control violations

In Belize City, 5 non-compliant stores serve the Lake-I community. Controller of Supplies, Lennox Nicholson says legislation provides for publication of names of non-compliant establishments.

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Nov. 13, 2023

During a period of two months, from September to November 3rd, five inspectors in the Price Control Unit (PCU) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise ticketed a total of 59 out of some 112 stores countrywide for supplies control violations. In Belize City, 14 stores were visited, and of that number, 10 were found to be non-compliant. Of the 10, nine are Asian-owned. Four are located along Mahogany Street, with a total of 5 non-compliant stores serving the Lake Independence Division. Another 3 operate from locations off Central American Boulevard, while one is located on South Street and the other on New Road. The 10th non-compliant store, which is not Asian-owned, is located on Euphrates Avenue.

The PCU, headed by Controller of Supplies Lennox Nicholson, has now visited stores countrywide in the first round of inspections. However, the Unit does not visit every single store. Nicholson explained that, based on years of experience, they select stores based on risk. He indicated that prior to the start of the exercise, they visited establishments and took notes. He revealed that in the case of San Pedro, there was universal non-compliance – all 11 stores visited were ticketed. In Caye Caulker, non-compliance was 75%.

Whereas Nicholson says the Unit was previously bogged down with the paperwork required to take violators through the court system, the price control regulations enacted this year now allow them to address violations expeditiously through ticketing. Additionally, Nicholson says Cabinet granted the Unit wide access to resources to improve compliance with the regulations. “One of the major limitations we used to have is pretty much access to vehicles, access to diesel and things like that – because we need to be mobile. For those two months, basically, we have been in a position where whatever we asked for, we got,” commented Nicholson. As a result, Nicholson says they increased their output by 400% compared to the fourteen cases they addressed between 2009 and 2022. The changes to the laws came, of course, as a result of the cries of the public about inflation and price gouging.

While the need to take violators to court has not been eliminated entirely, Nicholson said that going forward, this would only happen where there is continued non-payment of the initial ticket fee, which is $300. After a certain period of non-payment of tickets, the fee doubles, and, eventually, the ticket becomes a summons. If violators are convicted, the fine would be heavier. While the recent bout of inspections that led to the issuance of so many tickets may serve as a deterrent for some businesses to ensure compliance with the law, Nicholson shared one example of an establishment which was previously taken to court twice for non-compliance. Nicholson said that when the business was visited this time around, sure enough, they were found once more to be non-compliant.

We asked if the big supermarkets in the different locations were also visited. Nicholson responded that perhaps the concern needs to be redirected somewhat, because the bulk of the problem is elsewhere, and he pointed back to the number of non-compliant stores along Mahogany Street in Belize City. Nicholson opined, “When you go to establishments which serve some of the most underprivileged parts of the city, and an item that would cost a certain amount at the big store is actually a dollar more at that establishment, and they are serving people who basically purchase to satisfy their needs on a day-to-day basis – which gives you an indication that those are perhaps the segment of our population that can least afford to pay higher prices. So, while I will tell you that we go everywhere, big stores and small, there are certain establishments that serve the clientele that require our assistance the most, and we have a duty to ensure that we put a lot of our emphasis in those areas.”

Among the violations which the Belize City businesses were cited for were failure to display the price for controlled goods, and offering goods for sale above the controlled price. These are considered core violations. The third is failure to provide an invoice which allows for a determination of whether the price is within the markup.

Some have questioned whether the Unit will conduct more in-depth assessments that would include a review of customs data matched to information from the stores. Nicholson revealed that the Unit actually has an agency account on the Customs Department’s ASYCUDA system, and they have a longstanding relationship with the Department. He explained, however, that such administrative information would become relevant at the level of the wholesalers and importers to determine if they are “operating within the scope of the regulations because there is a landed cost when that product reaches here – which is what you would get from the customs material. And then, when you do the inspections in the retail outlets, that price would show what they bought it for from the importer, and then you calculate.” At this time, says Nicholson, they are only just collecting the data from the retail sector, and then they will move up the value chain to determine at which stage gouging may be occurring.

Nicholson says consumers continue to reach out to the Unit to file reports. Recent ones feature businesses that have not adhered to the policy change to remove duties and taxes from feminine hygiene products. Nicholson says that in their second round of inspections they will target these products and others. A new number will be released shortly for consumers to submit their receipts and to report violations.

The mandate given to the Unit is to ensure a continuous presence and enforce the regulations to the full extent, and Nicholson has affirmed that they intend to comply. A commitment has been made that the Unit will receive 6 more staff members within the new year, and they should be bolstered with the assistance from the public officers who will be identified by the Public Service Union to assist with ticketing once they have been trained. They will learn the legislation and tricks of the trade, as well as how to deal with possible aggression. Nicholson commented that in this latest round of inspections, the businesses were already aware of what was to come, as they held consultations with stakeholders, including with the Belize Chinese Association (BCA), to whom they even provided photographs of the inspectors to eliminate any possibility of extortion. As such, said Nicholson, the questions they received from the businesses during the first round of inspection were related to the deadline by which they should pay the tickets, and where they should make payments. Nicholson says the most emphatic request from the BCA was for there to be fairness across the board.

Perhaps the most burning question on people’s minds is, why the names of violating stores have not been published. The legislation provides for such publication, but Nicholson has asked for another month or so to reveal the names. He says there are some gaps that need to be closed from the first round of inspections before names are published. He asked for another month or so for that to happen. He explained, “I think there are things to find in a couple locations that were not found, and I need to make sure that we dig out what we need to dig out.” He added that going into the Christmas period, they will heighten their presence and tweak some of their strategies as businesses adjust.

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