Catering guilds object to removal of pricing rules

Updated: 2013-12-16 23:53

By Zhao Lei (China Daily)

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Restaurant owners and customers in China are witnessing a seesaw battle between catering industry guilds and commerce authorities over "unfair requirements".

The China Tourist Hotel Association, which is administered by the China National Tourism Administration and has more than 2,600 members, issued an open letter to the State Administration for Industry and Commerce on Monday, urging the administration to rectify some "improper directions" made by the Beijing commerce authority to local catering businesses.

On Dec 9, the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce asked catering businesses in the capital to remove six requirements that it deems unfair for consumers.

The requirements include requiring consumers to pay for tableware, requiring they spend a certain amount of money to use VIP rooms and forbidding them from drinking liquor they bring to a restaurant.

Restaurants must cease these "unfair" practices within one month, the Beijing administration said.

However, the hotel association said it believes the government should not meddle when the market can govern itself by its own rules.

"If a business displays its do's and don'ts at the entrance or informs consumers in a proper manner, and then the consumer chooses to stay, then we can deem that the consumer has received these contracts," the association contended in the letter.

In addition, a restaurant rather than the government should have the right to forbid consumers from bringing in and drinking outside liquor, the letter said.

"The government should not make a compulsory stipulation; otherwise it compromises the market's functions," it added.

The hotel guild was not alone in condemning the new rules.

The China Cuisine Association, which claims to represent more than 12 million workers in the catering industry, demanded on Thursday that the State commerce authority revoke Beijing's orders and that the municipal administration apologize for them.

In response, the national administration said that regulating and eliminating unfair contracts is one of the major responsibilities of commerce watchdogs.

Internet users in China have said they are long fed up with the rules of some restaurants and support the commerce authorities' move.

"Industry guilds should stop the indiscriminate support to their members and help to improve catering businesses," wrote a netizen who uses the name bozaideshijie3.

Qiu Baochang, head lawyer with the China Consumers' Association, said some unreasonable rules imposed on consumers have damaged enterprises' relations with consumers, so the problem must be corrected.

"For instance, one of the requirements to be removed is that consumers must inform the restaurant 15 days in advance if they want to make changes to a reserved dinner, or they will be charged according to the initial contract," Qiu said.

"It is reasonable that a certain fee be charged as some sort of penalty, but a full charge is an infringement on consumers' rights."

Yi Shenghua, an attorney at Yingke Law Firm in Beijing, though, said he believes the commerce department is well-intended in removing "unfair" clauses for diners but it failed to consider some basic facts of the catering industry.

"The regulators and consumers were usually focused on the price of liquor sold in restaurants, which seemed very high," he said. "They don't see the 'invisible costs' of the enterprises, such as decorations and rent."