— Says Chamber of Commerce Secretary-General, but Inspector says right procedure was followed
Ms. Salamartu Duncan, Secretary-General of the Liberia Chamber of Commerce (LCC), has said that the Inspector General of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) does not have the authority to issue fines on-site.
Ms. Duncan, quoting excerpts of the MOCI handbook for operating businesses, specifically 9.0, the Business Inspection Guide, said the Ministry’s Division of Inspectorate is responsible for inspections of businesses to monitor compliance and ensure that businesses comply and abide by the laws and regulations governing commerce and trade with in the country.
But on the contrary, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, through its Inspectorate Division, shut down the Fuzion Restaurant in Sinkor for failure to pay a fine of US$3,000 imposed on the business by the MoC.
Commerce Ministry Inspector General Josephine Davies, who ordered the shutdown on Fuzion, told newsmen on Monday that her team’s decision to fine the restaurant was based on the business’ refusal to allow a regular inspection by authorities.
“We went to Fuzion on the 28th of August, identified ourselves and told them we were there for inspection. The sales manager told us that she was not the owner of the business and that we should wait for the Manager. She called the Manager on speakerphone and he instructed her not to allow us in to do the inspection,” Davies narrated.
“I stood there for over thirty-five minutes and the manager refused to come. When you tell us not to carry on our inspection that means you are hiding something that you don’t want us to discover. The law says once you refuse inspection it is our responsibility to issue you a fine,” she added.
According to her, after the initial encounter, the management of Fuzion was given one week to reconsider its decision and submit to the inspection, which they never did.
She said that the general and technical businesses are inspected for current and valid business registration and license to operate; display of certificate of registration and license to operate at the place of business; price tagging of commodities.
Others include the expiry dates of goods and withdrawal from sale of expired products; adequate storage facilities (warehouse and retail outlets) for fresh and frozen products; English labeling requirement; the accuracy of weights and scales; Temperature controls of cold storage facilities and refrigerated products.
According to Ms. Duncan, the current inspection procedures incorporate checklists, inspections order, inspection notices and a clear notification to the public of the sectors that will be inspected. The Ministry has also introduced inspection guides under four key areas (Weights and Measures, Industry Inspections, Food and Safety, GMP, and Warehousing). These inspection guides are meant to identify and develop the capacity of technical inspectors.
“Once the inspection is completed, the business will be provided with a copy of the inspection findings. If a violation is found as per the inspections fines and fees schedule, a fine is assessed. The inspector does not have the authority to issue fines on-site. Inspection findings and fees can be appealed,” she said.
However, the Ministry then issued Fuzion a citation to come to the Ministry to explain why they refused inspection, but the Inspector General said the restaurant refused to honor the invitation.
“They refused to come, they even refused to take the citation or sign for it, which means that they don’t want to subject themselves to the inspection and that calls for a fine. The business laws say once you refuse a citation from the Commerce Ministry, that means you have automatically rejected inspection,” Davies narrated.
“So we imposed the fine on them on the 4th of September to be paid into government revenue within 72 hours and the time has elapsed. It is our responsibility to close down the business because they are in defiance. The restaurant will remain closed until they can pay the fine,” the official emphasized.
The proprietor of Fuzion, Telia Urey, soon after the closure of her business, took to social media, terming the Ministry’s move as “an act of political harassment and witch-hunt by the government.”
Urey indicated that in a conference on September 9, she and her lawyers pleaded with the commerce Inspectorate Division to reduce the fine on grounds that the cashier, whom Davies previously engaged regarding the inspection, did not know the procedures for inspection and it did not fall within her scope of work.
But Davies said that was no excuse “because the law says whomsoever is left in charge of a business should be quite knowledgeable of that enterprise.”
Nonetheless, Davies said that Ms. Urey’s business was not targeted for otherwise reason as the owner claimed on Facebook. She insisted the inspection exercise was routine and has been affecting several other establishments in Monrovia and other parts of the country – some of which have also been fined for being in violation.
“If you are doing business in the country, it is your responsibility to make sure that you respect the laws on the books,” Davies stated.