The Cost of Living, the Cost of Survival Women as Consumers

An address by Anwar Fazal, Regional Director, International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific at a Panel Discussion at the International Women’s Year Tribune, Mexico City on 30 June 1975.

  1. I shall speak to you briefly about the Third World consumer and the Fourth World consumer. The Third World is represented by those nations which have gained their independence and emerged as nation states in the last three decades; the Fourth World refers to those nations among the Third World which because of lack of food and energy resources are unable to have viable economies to sustain the populations without massive aid or mass death.
  1. Many of the Third or Fourth World countries have “elitist” economies – where a few are able to enjoy a standard of living and even choices as comfortable and varied as those in western nations.  For the vast majority of those countries, it is a situation of deprivation, of exploitation and a constant struggle for the basic necessities of life – of food, water, fuel, clothing, shelter, basic health and educational services.
  1. In these communities, the consumer is subject to the most hideous kinds of commercial malpractices, the lack of provision of the basic infrastructure for a decent level of living and a poor or non-existent provision of basic amenities by the public agencies responsible.
  1. Women, in view of the responsibilities in the management of the household, its cooking, the children, are subject to a worse kind of exploitation than the other half of humanity.
  1. The list of injustices, of exploitation, is a long one and was discussed at length in discussions and reports of consumer organisations from the Asian and Pacific region held in Singapore in early 1974.  A few examples will suffice to give you an idea of the seriousness of the situation: 

·               In India, women die of fires caused by poorly constructed oil cooking stoves.

·               Food adulteration is so rife that the poor do not get wholesome or right quantities of food for their little income.  Factories that specialise in making stones which look life rice grains have been reported.

·               A sample survey of markets in another Asian country showed that 90 percent of the purchase weighted less than what they were supposed to when purchased.

·               In Malaysia, Rhodamine B, a colouring used in paints, was found widely used in certain popular flavourings of foodstuffs.

·               Most popular goods are subject to imitation manufacture – e.g. Soap, toothpaste, tea and more serious, over-the-counter medicines for common ailments like coughs, colds and headaches.

·               Backyard factories have been found producing drugs including antibiotics and other potent and dangerous drugs.

·               Blatant, misleading advertising can be found on bill – boards, in newspapers and other mass media channels.  Van salesmen tour rural villages getting low income consumers to spend their little money on goods of little and doubtful value – directed largely at women who through the village markets.

·               Such communities are also characterised by “conspicuous consumption”- births, weddings and deaths become occasions for excessive expenditure, leading to debt.  The absence of fair credit laws and facilities drives the low income consumers into the clutches of money lenders who charge rates as high as 10 percent a month – very often leading to lifetime bondage.       

·               In urban areas, new hire purchase plans – buy now, pay later – are foisted on low income consumers at rates as high as 40 percent while the media perpetrates the kind of social climate which raises the aspiration for the purchase of convenience consumer goods e.g. toasters, refrigerators, radiograms.

·               Madison-Avenue type of advertising fills the mass media; such advertising is often organised by branches of large multinational advertising and public relations firms who are particularly active in promoting the sale of other multinational companies with whom they may have worldwide links.

·               Sales gimmicks and tactics of the kind regulated or banned in developed countries are now appearing in developing countries, e.g. pyramid selling of cosmetics, a system that preys on vanity and greed and has been the result of the downfall of many.

·               Breastfeeding is subtly discouraged and the powerful multinationals, hungry for profits, sell infant milk formulas through a system of “mothercraft nurses” using high pressure advertising, free gifts etc. Many low income families have been influenced to down rate breastfeeding and turn to milk powder which they can ill afford, which they are unable to prepare in the right strength and with proper sterilisation.

·               The world food crisis in the last two years saw massive profiteering at the international, national and local levels. With stock markets and world currencies unstable, huge sums of money turned to capture the markets for foodstuff and other essentials for the sole purpose of speculative profits. At the end of the line, the poor consumer has no rice, no bread, no sugar and half-hearted measures by often helpless governments only lead to black-markets. Japanese financiers who were guilty of such activity in Japan were made to apologise and humble themselves in person in the Japanese Parliament for activities of profiteering in Japan.

·               Action of multinational corporations in the control of markets, price fixing, tax manipulation and formation of cartels all act in the end against the consumer interest.

·               Corporate irresponsibility is also seen in cases of the blatant export of pollution.

·               The activities of pharmaceutical firms in lack of standards, prices, dosage, and indications for the same drugs in different countries have been subject to study by consumer groups.

  1. Throughout the world, consumer groups are now concerned about life styles that are energy-consuming and resource-consuming. The International Organization of Consumers Unions serves to co-ordinate action by consumer organisations, e.g.  we found children's toys made in Thailand  which contained excessive lead and were sold in Australia. We inform our organisations throughout the region about such dangers.
  1.  In all the above areas of injustice in the market place there is a critical role for women. Already in most of the developing countries in Asia and the Pacific women have come forward to right such injustices – they have formed consumer groups or set up consumer action projects within their organisations. They work in the slums and rural areas to help low income consumers with information and education, to seek redress when they are cheated. They help to seek from public agencies the kind of services they are entitled to secure a decent level of living. Home economists now talk about how to detect bad advertising, credit exploitation, safety and the real facts about many foods and many medicines. These women’s groups are building new kinds of awareness about consumer rights – their rights to basic necessities and services, to safety, to choice, information, to consumer education, to redress when cheated, to participate in the decision making process about matters affecting the consumer, and to live in a clean and healthy environment.
  1. The Draft Plan for Action before the International Women’s Year Conference disturbs me in that women are far too often regarded as passive consumers and important only in their contribution to the Gross National Product. The Plan should be more concerned with women as activist consumers seeking through the removal of injustice in the market-place a better quality of life for all.
  1. I hope many of you will take this message to your countries and that you will stir up the conscience of your government and your business community. I hope some of you will take up the challenge to organise the consumers in your community for the kind of responsible and constructive action for social justice. Women can provide the kind of honest and fresh leadership that is needed.

If we have dishonest business practices and shoddy goods we will have a dishonest society, and shoddy people. Society, it has been said, is like fish – it rots from the head down. You as heads, leaders and catalysts in your community have a responsibility on your conscience to fight for a fair deal for your citizens. If you don't, ultimately society will rot with you.

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