DTI: price freeze stays despite lower alert level
The price freeze on basic commodities remains in effect despite a lower alert level on Taal Volcano, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said on Monday.
Noli Manalo of the DTI regional price and monitoring group reminded the public of the price freeze as the agency expected a price surge in areas in Batangas province placed under an almost two-week lockdown.
The department was closely monitoring the supply and price of canned goods, noodles, bottled water and even batteries.
Also covered by the price freeze are 218 basic and essential medicines and medical supplies, including face masks, in areas affected by the eruption of Taal Volcano.
As of Monday, the local governments in Batangas had lifted the lockdown order in most of the 14 Taal lakeshore towns and cities, except for six villages in the towns of Agoncillo and Laurel within the 7-kilometer radius hazard zone.
As residents began returning to their homes, Manalo said the DTI expected households to have run out of food and water since it had been weeks since close to a million people were evacuated.
The DTI also expects a demand for batteries since the power supply has yet to be fully restored, while road fissures and ash piles could delay delivery trucks transporting food items to these areas.
“We are to monitor next the towns of Lemery, Taal, those parts [of Batangas affected by the volcanic eruption] where price increases are most likely to happen,” Manalo said.
18 stores profiteering
The DTI has so far charged 18 retail stores with profiteering from the sudden spike in demand for N95 masks.
It has tapped its Fair Trade Enforcement Bureau (FTEB) to monitor the prices and supply of N95 and surgical masks following the volcano’s eruption on Jan. 12, the agency said in a statement on Monday.
Twelve of the retail stores are in Bambang, Santa Cruz, Manila, a go-to area for those who want to buy medical supplies either in bulk or per piece.
The DTI did not specify where the other six stores were located.
The figures, however, had not yet been updated as of press time to reflect the findings, if any, of the agency’s surprise monitoring in Batangas on Monday.
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez was joined by Valenzuela City Rep. Weslie Gatchalian in the “surprise” check of basic and prime goods in Batangas City, the province’s capital.
Notice of violation
The DTI said it had earlier given the retail stores a notice of violation, demanding an explanation within 48 hours.
“Upon finding the explanations to be not acceptable, the [notices] ripened to [f]ormal
[c]harges against the erring establishments [under the Consumer Act],” it said.
The stores were found violating Article 52 of the Price Act, referring to unfair or unconscionable sales acts or practices.
A transaction can be an unfair sale in a number of ways. One of these, according to the law, is when a business takes advantage of “the general conditions of the environment or surroundings”—a description that perhaps fits perfectly to the immediate reaction to the eruption.
The eruption, made worse by the fear of its consequences, had led to masks being swept off the shelves of popular drugstores in a short time, leaving consumers at the mercy of retailers, who saw an opportunity in the shortage to overprice.
According to the DTI, the FTEB reported that prices of N95 masks jumped from P50 to P180 per piece, as most establishments that were monitored had claimed that the products had already been sold out.
Lopez said erring establishments would face an administrative penalty of up to P300,000, depending on the gravity of the offense.
The government-imposed price ceiling stays as long as Batangas and its adjacent province, Cavite, are under a state of calamity, according to Manalo.
The same goes for emergency medicines, like analgesics and antibiotics.
Over the past five days, DTI teams have gone around Santo Tomas City, Tanauan City, Mataas na Kahoy, Alitagtag, Cuenca, San Jose, Ibaan, Balayan and Calaca—mostly those outside the locked-down zones but housed thousands of evacuees—and noticed an “increase by a few centavos” in the price of basic commodities, Manalo said.
“During Days 1 to 4 [since the Jan. 12 eruption], the supply [of basic goods] also became difficult due to bulk buying [of relief packs by donor organizations] within these areas,” Manalo said.
The Department of Agriculture monitors the price of agricultural products like rice and pork in Batangas public markets. —WITH A REPORT FROM ROY STEPHEN C. CANIVEL INQ
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