As principal officer for the Consumer Council's complaints and advice division, Chan Wing Kai is well aware that his major responsibility as a protector of consumer rights is to represent in practical terms the scales of justice which are so prominently shown in his organisation's logo. His position calls for an exceptionally high degree of impartiality, the ability to take a balanced view, and the need to play a proactive role in the furtherance of general consumer rights.
During his sixteen years with the council he has been witness to many changes in consumer behaviour. In particular, he notes that in the early days, "People used to be happy to have someone to act on their behalf; these days they often want to squeeze out the maximum amount of compensation dispensable by law." Undeterred by this, he is still dedicated to the daily business of identifying and investigating valid complaints and concerns, disseminating information, and taking the necessary action to right any wrongs.
Recently, he has noticed a rapidly increasing number of complaints directed against the providers of telecommunications services, which is perhaps an indication of the intense competition for sales and new subscribers in that sector. In general terms, complaints can range from matters which potentially involve claims for millions of dollars to those for comparatively minor sums. Besides handling each of these on its merits, the Consumer Council also undertakes research studies on trade practices, which may have an effect on market competition, and conducts media campaigns on safety issues in order to keep the public fully informed. They are in a position to provide legal assistance for deserving cases through the Consumer Legal Action Fund.
It is more important to find the right personalities for the job
Mr Chan's duties also include overseeing staff training and exchange programmes with organisations on the mainland. Government departments there often act as the relevant counterpart. Steady progress up the career ladder saw him regularly assume additional responsibilities until he arrived at his current position. It is one he says he wouldn't trade for anything in the world, since it allows him to exert influence and shape policies. "You can't change everything, but I feel that I am contributing in my own way to the extent I can," he says. He derives special job satisfaction from the feeling that he is able to contribute something to the wider community.
In offering advice to those interested in a career with the council, Mr Chan explains that the basic requirement is a university degree in any discipline and, preferably, fluency in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. "It is more important to find the right personalities for the job, as there are special attributes that we look for in all recruits," he says. These include possessing empathy, an analytical mind and excellent communication skills. It is also necessary to have the intellectual ability to look at things from a new perspective. Candidates must take a written examination and several interviews, after which they embark on a training programme which covers the intricacies of Consumer Protection Law and gives them an in-depth understanding of the scope of the job.
According to Mr Chan, the most essential characteristics are honesty and integrity. Working for the council in any capacity naturally calls for accountability, the need to protect personal data, independence in decision-making, and being able to resist firmly any suggestion of undue influence from outside parties. "This type of work can be a great stepping-stone to many other related careers in business or public service. It gives due rewards and personal satisfaction," he adds.
After completing the training course, new officers begin by examining individual consumer complaints and resolving cases. If they perform well, they can expect promotion to senior officer grade, at which point salaries jump noticeably to a level of about HK$35,000 a month. Further experience can then lead to the post of chief officer.
As in any job, there can be unexpected problems and frustrations. Mr Chan admits that certain members of the public can be notoriously difficult to please, but believes that by encouraging codes of practice and advocating appropriate legislative measures, things will improve. The council makes consistent efforts to respond quickly to complaints and closely monitors business practices in sectors prone to anti-competitive behaviour, even though this often proves difficult. What makes it all worthwhile for Mr Chan is that his passion for protecting consumer rights remains undimmed and he can see that the council has won a position of respect in the minds of the Hong Kong public.
Over the years, the Consumer Council has worked to maintain a close relationship with the mainland authorities to protect the consumer rights of mainland tourists. Besides constant promotional activities in Hong Kong, at border crossings and on the mainland, ad hoc training programmes are arranged and learning opportunities are organised on a regular basis. Various channels for complaints and refunds have also been set up and are closely monitored by the council. Special educational promotions in Mandarin and simplified Chinese are also in place to complement the comprehensive services offered to mainland tourists.