By Jaydar Medrozo
The recent decision of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to impose a Php19 million fine on the big distribution monopoly Manila Electric Company (Meralco) is commendable.
ERC deserves to be lauded for its swift and resolute action on behalf of the millions of Meralco consumers, but they need to do more. Meralco did not only violate ERC’s advisories, but also took advantage of the many uncertainties brought by the pandemic.
The penalty is good, but not enough.
It should reflect not just their actual violations, but the mental, moral and emotional costs of their actions experienced by their consumers who were cornered to pay their estimated bills to ensure a sense of household normalcy in the midst of a raging pandemic.
What is lacking further is transparency that is absent from the beginning and the very reason why Meralco was able to sneakily come up with bill estimates without proper scrutiny.
The ERC should also be transparent on how it arrived at the P19-million fine. There ERC owes the public full disclosure of the computation process.
The P19-million is nothing but a mere slap on the wrist. From the perspective of cost-benefit, a P19-million risk is worth it considering the windfall Meralco would get had they not been caught red-handed.
Though it was multiplied by the number of infractions perpetrated by Meralco, it is still nowhere close to what it was able to collect from the consumers from their billing overestimation – not to mention the millions of pesos it got from the unauthorized P47 convenience fee it snuck into consumers who paid online. While ERC ordered Meralco to give discounts to lifeline consumers through the zeroing out of distribution, supply, and metering charges (which reportedly would reach P275 million worth of discounts), excludes the rest of the consumers who were also affected by Meralco’s erroneous ways. At best it is unfair and discriminatory, and very diversionary on Meralco’s accountability. Meralco failed all its consumers. It should give back not just to the lifeline consumers, but to all affected consumers.
This Meralco scandal shows what the whole industry lacks.
This scandal shows that the ERC lacks an active and long term oversight. The issue demonstrates that without scrutiny from experts and consumers, utilities like Meralco can do things as they please unless they’re caught. If they’re not, oh well.
It lacks transparency on how distribution utilities and electric cooperatives operate in the country. One thing’s for sure, this issue is not isolated to MERALCO but could also be an issue happening across the country, therefore it is imperative on all socially responsible distribution utilities and electric cooperatives to come clean and issue a statement of guarantee that you are not doing what Meralco is doing to their consumers.
We call on both Congress and the Senate to start institutionalizing the meaningful participation of consumers not just during hearings, but on how the industry will run to strike a balance between pure profiteering and protecting the welfare of the populace.
We laud the Energy Regulatory Commission for a job well done, but it is wanting. The Commission can do more and should do more. We, the consumers, are watching.
Jaydar Medrozo is a consumer rights advocate.