COVID-19, excessive pricing, South Africa

Competition Commission makes good on its promise to clamp down on excessive pricing amid COVID-19 outbreak

Despite the overwhelming amount of excessive pricing complaints being referred to the South African Competition Commission (“the Commission”), it has remained unwavering in its commitment to prioritize and follow-through on bringing the full might of the law down on suppliers and retails who have used the prevailing circumstances to take advantage of consumers by increasing prices on essential goods and services with no cost increase justification.

This is illustrated in a media statement released by the Commission on 15 April 2020, wherein the particulars of the Commissions first referral to the Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”) for price gouging on facial masks was expanded upon, and which is due to be heard on 24 April 2020.

Babelegi Workwear Overall Manufacturers and Industrial Supplies CC (“Babelegi”) allegedly engaged in price gouging through its 500% mark-up on facial masks, which is considered as an essential good, for the period 31 January 2020 to 5 March 2020. Babelegi’s supplier is also under investigation by the Commission for allegedly engaging in excessive pricing after it subsequently came to light that the said supplier purportedly increased its input prices.

In a media statement issued on 31 March 2020, the Commission aired its concerns  in and prioritization on suppliers and retailers who charge excessive prices on COVID-19 essentials, as well as complainants who are considered essential service professionals (such as doctors, policemen etc). The Commission also outlined the expedited preliminary investigations it will undertake in complaints. In this respect, respondent firms have 48 hours in which to confirm or rebut the allegations brought against it. Importantly, the Commission has showed that some complaints may indeed be justified where firms provide a valid cost increase justification. Accordingly, not all acts of price increases will be condemned as price gouging.

As highlighted by the Commission, firms can expect to see a wave of prosecutions in the coming days. The Commission has already concluded (but not yet referred) numerous price gouging complaints, to name a few:

  • A pharmacy has increased its mark-up on face marks and sanitizers by more than 300%;
  • A hardware store has allegedly increased the price of surgical gloves from R99.99 to R170.00 within one week absent any cost increase justification; and
  • A wholesaler of chicken has marked-up chicken pieces by up to 50%, also absent any cost increase justification.

It is important to keep in mind that firms engaging in excessive pricing, price fixing, allocation of markets and market shares and bid rigging risk facing a fine of up to 10% of their annual turnover, and risk a fine of up to 25% of their annual turnover in respect of repeat offences. Furthermore, complaints regarding price fixing, the allocation of markets and market shares and bid rigging could result in certain directors who engage in or initiate such contraventions with imprisonment of up to 10 years.

The spike in competition law contraventions amidst the COVID-19 outbreak is not unique to South Africa, the Ministry of Trade in Rwanda has itself imposed fines on 178 companies to the amount of RwF of 15 850 000 to date. Furthermore, the Competition Authority of Kenya (“CAK”) has shown its determination in prosecuting exploitative conduct during the outbreak in the remedial order it issued to Cleanshelf Supermarkets for unconscionably adjusting prices of sanitizers.  Cleanshelf was ordered to find and refund all consumers who purchased the sanitizers above the usual selling price.

There is little doubt that the Commission will continue its endeavor in prosecuting COVID-19 related competition complaints, it may very well be slowed down due to the sheer explosion of complaints, but firms should not be quick to translate this voluminous burden as a gap in competition law enforcement that can be taken advantage of. Akin to his observation, Tembinkosi Bonakele, Commissioner of the Competition Commssion said “The Commission has now gone past the stage of moral suasion and appeals to patriotism to stop abuse of market power by those seeking to exploit consumers at the worse possible time – the law must take its course – we will see a wave of prosecution of firms in the next coming days.”

 

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AAT, AAT exclusive, excessive pricing, South Africa, Uncategorized

South Africa Competition Tribunal: Regulations published to expedite COVID-19 excessive and unfair pricing complaint referrals

[The editors at AfricanAntitrust wish to thank Jemma Muller and Gina Lodolo for compiling this article]

On 3 April 2020, Minister Ebrahim Patel made amendments to section 27(2) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (“the Act”) with regards to the regulations pertaining to the functions of the Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”).

The amendment was enacted to regulate complaint referrals for alleged contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act which deals with the charging of excessive prices by a dominant firm. The amendment is crucial in light of the current state of affairs, where the charging of excessive prices has become more frequent during the Covid-19 outbreak. Accordingly, the amendment is only applicable for the duration of the period of the declaration of a Natural State of Disaster with regards to COVID-19.

An applicant who wishes to bring a complaint based on an alleged contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act, read with the Consumer and Customer Protection Regulations, must file a Notice of Motion and founding affidavit to the Tribunal.

Urgent complaint referral procedure

Who must file the complaint referral?

A complaint referral may be filed by the Commission or a complainant, as soon as possible after the commission has issued a notice of non-referral to that complainant.

Notice of motion requirements

An applicant must allege a contravention of section 8(1)(a), indicate the order sought against the respondent(s) and state the name and and address (electronic or otherwise) of each respondent in respect to whom the order is sought. Applicant’s may also state the date and time on which the applicant wishes the matter to be heard by the Tribunal.

Founding affidavit

The founding affidavit must set out the grounds of urgency and the material points of law and evidence that support the complaint. In addition, the applicant may include confirmatory affidavits from any factual or expert witnesses.

Procedure

The applicant must serve a copy of the Notice of Motion and founding affidavit on each of the respondent(s) named in the Notice of Motion and file a copy of the application with the Tribunal.

The important time periods:

A respondent must serve a copy of their Answering Affidavit on the complainant within 72 hours of service of the complaint referral. Thereafter the person who filed the Complaint referral may serve a copy for their Reply within 24 hours after being served with a copy of the Answering Affidavit.

The Tribunal will then determine the date and time for the hearing of the complaint referral (Tribunal Rules 6,16,17,18,18,47,54 and 55 apply to an application under this Rule unless they pertain to Rules which stipulate time-frames).

These documents may be filed electronically.

Urgent hearing

The Tribunal may direct that the urgent complaint proceedings in terms of the Rules may be conducted wholly as video or audio proceedings.

If no answering affidavit is filed within the period set out in the Notice of Motion or such extended period as may be determined by the Tribunal, the urgent complaint referral may be heard on an unopposed basis.

The Tribunal will determine if there was contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act based on the evidence contained in the affidavits unless there is a substantial dispute of fact which cannot be resolved by affidavits. In this case the Tribunal may determine an expedited procedure (which may include oral evidence on an expedited basis by way of video or audio proceedings). The Tribunal may also call for further evidence if it is required (subject to section 55 of the Act).

Remedies

The Tribunal may impose a pricing order if the respondent has been found to contravene section 8(1)(a) of the Act. The respondent may apply to appeal or review the decision on an urgent basis to the Competition Appeal Court (the pricing order will remain in force unless it is set aside by the court on appeal or review).

Consent order

The Commission may at any time (before, during and after and investigation) conclude a consent agreement for a complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Act and it will be the full and final settlement of the matter  (including settlement of civil proceedings). This consent order may be confirmed by the Tribunal without hearing any evidence.

The amended complaint referral procedures equip complainants with the means in which to assist the competition authorities in penalizing those who have used the prevailing circumstances to exploit consumers, and is thus a commendable and efficient tool invoked by the Minister.

 

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