The Bottom Line / Who Will Fight for the Consumer?

Is there anyone here who can really worry only about consumers?

The supervisor of banks looks after bank customers, but his main job is making sure the banks don't collapse. The supervisor of insurance handles the insured public, but his real job is to maintain the stability of the insurance companies. The Industry and Trade Ministry operates the Consumer Council, which is supposed to look after consumers, but the ministry's main job is to look after industrialists and merchants.

And who is left to look after the consumer? No one. Galit Avishai's resignation from the Consumer Council, after four and half years of running it, is bad news for the consumer. Not just because she's leaving - everyone is replaceable - but why she is leaving. The ministry decided to slash the Consumer Council budget to just NIS 1.6 million, which indicates the marginal position that consumer issues hold in its priorities.

The remaining budget is too meager to fund professional work on consumerism, research, study of global trends, payment to legal advisers and lobbyists, and any other tasks the Consumer Council faces. Without a budget, the council and the consumers with it become easy prey to the business sector's battery of consultants, experts and lobbyists. A single visit to the council's sparse offices clarifies how light on resources is this organization. Does it even stand a chance in battles against titan corporations?

Clearly, it is hard to make real achievements under these conditions, particularly as consumer consciousness in Israel is not well-developed and the only population that knows how to use its consumer power is the ultra-Orthodox.

Avishai's departure and the weakening of the Consumer Council requires the establishment of an independent body that isn't subordinate to the Trade Ministry, a well-budgeted entity that can fight for consumers. Such an entity, working correctly, could reach great achievement for consumers in areas such as legislation. It's enough to see how much money the public will save due to cellular- and banking-sector regulation to get a grip on what a good investment a well-funded, strong consumer watchdog would be for the public.

So here's a thought on how to budget such a body: If every citizen contributes two shekels a year to that body, it would have a budget of NIS 12 million and be a consumer Goliath. And how do we raise those NIS 2? Every consumer would be required to donate one banking line-item fee, which costs NIS 1.2, and one minute of cellular interconnectivity fee, which costs NIS 53. Together we get NIS 1.73. (Then we adopt the cellular company method and round up to the nearest NIS 2.)

The banks and the cellular providers would rally to the cry and agree to collect for the consumer council (for a fee). But we can assume that this time they would make an exception to their own rule and waive the fee and the entire measure, just as long as a real consumer watchdog with that much money isn't created. It would cost them more.