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SLS: The buyer's Assurance
In the increasingly competitive arena of international trade, maintaining quality and standards is vital. Officially recognised standards for products and services are necessary to enter global markets.
Defining the standards and assisting organisations in Sri Lanka to achieve and maintain them are functions of the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI).
SLSI commenced activities in 1964 as the Bureau of Standards. By an Act of Parliament in 1984 it was renamed Sri Lanka Standards Institution. The institution which functions under the Ministry of Science and Technology is a highly professional scientific organisation. Among its staff of 350, are 100 scientists and engineers and 50 middle level technical staff.
The SLSI operates at four different locations. There are four technical divisions and a training division. A new building at Elvitigala Mawatha houses the laboratory complex. Stage 2 of the building has begun. The entire institution will be moved to its new premises in due course.
"The two broad objectives of the SLSI are consumer protection and national development through standardisation and quality control" said Ranjith Jayawardene, Director General of the SLSI. "Quality is an important aspect in any commercial transaction", he continued.
Quality is a relative term. There should be a nationally recognised quality to any product or service in a country. This is the national standard for that product. There are officially recognised quality standards for products and services at different levels; for instance, company level, national level and international level".
Mr. Jayawardene explained that standards have to be scientifically defined. SLSI standards and processes have been defined for thousands of consumer items and services. Documents have been drawn up setting out the quality required. For example, the standard for canned fish specifies the quality of fish, its microbiological condition, quality of taste, odour, texture and flavour.
It also stipulates that the fish content should be a minimum of 60%. In processes such as electrical wiring of buildings, the proper procedures have been set out. When a product has to be assessed, it is tested to check if it conforms to the required standards. The standards serve as a guide to both manufacturer and trader.
Mr. Jayawardene commented that food and electrical items involve a great safety aspect. He feels that product liability laws in Sri Lanka are insufficient.
Speaking of consumer protection, he said the standards prepared by SLSI are voluntary. In order to make them compulsory, they need to have a good monitoring force. However, institutions like the consumer protection authority and food authority as well as regulatory acts such as the Consumer Protection Act 1 of 1979 by the, Ministry of Trade and the Food Act, 26 of 1980 by the Ministry of Health enforce that the SLSI standards are made compulsory.
"The legislative bodies of the country refer to national standards with regard to quality and safety", he said. 'Violators are prosecuted by them. We can thus concentrate on the technical aspects".
Where food is concerned, the prime responsibility for protection lies with the Ministry of Health. Standards are issued by the Ministry to safeguard against hazardous and inferior quality food. These standards which are slightly lower than SLSI standards are compulsory. Manufacturers of food items are required to supply certain information on the labels. Expiry date is a 'must' as well as the ingredients, so is the name of the product and manufacturer. Under the food laws, food inspectors are authorised to inspect samples from the markets.
According to Mr. Jayawardene, any standard gazetted by the Food Authority becomes compulsory. However, there are still violations. He explained that the reason for the violation is that they do not have the necessary machinery and resources to enforce the law effectively. "The best solution to the problem is to educate the consumer", he said.
"The most effective method of ensuring the maintenance of standards is to get the consumers to voice their opinion. In a country like Sri Lanka where resources are limited, the authorities cannot do wonders unless the consumers are vigilant. They must agitate against manufacturers who violate regulations", said Mr. Jayawardene.
SLSI has introduced a voluntary certification mark for commodities or products which are manufactured in Sri Lanka, in conformity with the relevant Sri Lanka standards. The certification mark on a commodity shows the consumer that it has been tested and certified by SLSI. It guarantees to the consumer that the product has been manufactured according to well planned out quality procedures. If the consumer looks for the certification mark when purchasing goods, it will induce the producers to get the certification mark on their products.
A manufacturer who wishes to obtain a permit to use the certification mark on a commodity first applies to SLSI. Inspectors visit the factory on a preliminary inspection and study the technical capability and methods of quality control used. Samples are tested against standards over a period of six months. The production process is monitored. The onus of complying with the standards and assisting the inspectors in making the samples available lies with the applicant. Finally, if the inspections are satisfactory, SLSI issues the permit. Monitoring and testing of samples continues even after the issue of a permit. This is a voluntary scheme designed to promote quality and is beneficial to both manufacturer and consumer. The consumer is at liberty to write to SLSI, Consumer Protection Authority or Food Authority regarding complaints on quality. Permit holders who violate the quality procedures are liable to have their permits cancelled.
"By preparing standards we help industrialists to know what they should aim at", says Mr. Jayawardene. The Standards Committee is widely represented and discussions are held over a period of one year. Standards in other countries are considered. When draft standards are ready, public comment is solicited. The final document is placed before the Board of SLSI and is subject to review and revision.
SLSI provides industries training facilities on quality control. Over thirty training programmes are conducted. The ISO 9000 certification scheme has recently been introduced in Sri Lanka by SLSI. ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) is a leading international organisation on standards, with a membership of over 100 standardisation bodies throughout the world. Sri Lanka too is a member country and is represented by SLSI.
ISO has prepared over 12,000 standards. ISO 9000 is a standards series on quality systems. It defines various responsibilities involved in every step of an operation so that quality is maintained. Before ISO 9000 standards came into effect, there were no official systems standards at international level. The global systems standard was formulated after studying standards set out in many different countries.
"Everybody understands an international standard" said Mr. Jayawardene. "It is of great advantage in international trade where the buyer is separated from the seller". He further explained that with a uniform internationally recognised quality system the buyer could place his trust on the standards.
If, for instance, SLSI could certify that ISO 9000 standards were followed in the manufacture of a product, it could be accepted as a guarantee of quality. SLSI itself is having its certification procedure certified in turn by an international body, the Certification Council of Netherlands.
SLSI has also introduced a National Quality Award scheme which commenced last year. A National Quality Week is held to coincide with World Standards Day only on October 14. The quality awards are announced on World Standards Day. Awards are presented for manufacturing as well as services in the categories large, medium and small. Based on a quality award scheme from USA, the applicants are evaluated on a 1000 point scale. Unless the minimum requirements are achieved, by the participants, the awards are not given. This award scheme has been initiated by SLSI to encourage organisations to improve their quality management systems.
Referring to World Standards Day on October 14, Mr. Jayawardene said that it was started by the three apex organisations in international standardisation to focus the attention of the world on the importance of quality control and standardisation. Today, more international standards are coming into use. Imports and exports will pose no problems if everyone follows one standard. This is however difficult with some products.
In areas like dimensional standards, uniform standards are relatively easy to achieve. For instance, uniform sizes for paper, torch batteries etc., facilitate trading in these items. International symbols on packages, traffic lights and airport procedures for example simplify the understanding of these operations throughout the world.
This year, "services" has been selected as the theme for World Standards Day since trade in services has been identified as the fastest growing sector in world trade today.
In order to improve productivity and quality in Sri Lanka, a project for the development of quality infrastructure is now under way with the assistance of the Swedish International Development Agency. At present 90% of quality related activities is handled by SLSI. It is proposed to set up an apex body to coordinate and control all quality related activities in the country such as standardisation, quality management, certification and metrology.
As a first step, a national quality policy has been drafted after a workshop of high level professionals together with Swedish consultants. The draft which has been approved by the Council of SLSI, will be sent unto the ministry and finally the Cabinet. After government approval, it assumes the status of a national quality policy.
Discussions are also in progress to guide Sri Lanka towards a national system of quality related activities.
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