PCC sees onion ‘cartel’ probe done in 2-3 months

AN ongoing investigation into a possible onion cartel could be completed within two or three months, according to the new chairman of the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC).

“If it leads to nowhere, then there’s no use prolonging it. But if the evidence is there, and I believe they (will be) able to find evidence, then it should be done within the next two or three months,” Michael G. Aguinaldo said in a news conference in Quezon City on Monday.

“The investigation is ongoing. There are no firm results yet because they’re still gathering a lot of information. The hearings in the Congress have provided also a great deal of information and so, our enforcement office is actually looking into it,” he added.

The competition regulator said on Feb. 16 that it is looking into whether the alleged onion cartel is behind the surge in prices, which it said hit a high of P600 per kilogram in December.

According to Mr. Aguinaldo, the challenge for the PCC is to prove the existence of anti-competitive agreements causing onion prices to rise.

He added that there was a lack of physical evidence in the cold storage facilities examined by the PCC.

“The challenge when you talk about cartels or anti-competitive agreements like this (is that) it’s quite difficult to prove because (of the need) to prove an agreement actually exists among major players and usually you won’t find anything like that in writing,” Mr. Aguinaldo said.

The PCC also provided updates on the refund process of transport network company Grab Philippines.

Lianne Ivy P. Medina, PCC officer-in-charge director for mergers and acquisitions office, said that the PCC is now studying the possibility of imposing another fine on Grab for being unable to provide the full amount to riders.

“The commission is now considering whether or not the circumstances or the reasons for which those refunds were not actually fully paid to the consumers would merit another fine to be imposed on Grab,” Ms. Medina said.

“The PCC found that Grab has not yet fully refunded all of the amount that they were supposed to have given to the riders,” she added.

However, Ms. Medina said that it does not necessarily mean that Grab Philippines is non-compliant on the refund.

“I would not say that it’s non-compliance (on the refund), but there was a defect in the way they complied such that a portion of the amount that they should have refunded was not fully refunded to the consumers,” she added.

According to Mr. Aguinaldo, Grab Philippines has refunded 70% of the amount but has yet to give back the remaining 30%, amounting P5 to P6 million.

The PCC ordered Grab to issue refunds to riders amounting to P5.05 million in November 2019, P14.15 million in December 2019, and P6.25 million in October 2020, totaling P25.45 million, due to breaches of the transportation firm’s price monitoring commitment.

The PCC imposed a P63.7-million penalty on Grab in 2018 for violating its price and service quality commitments.

In March, the PCC said only 24.1% of the total refunds have been claimed as of June 2021.

“There are portions that they cannot comply with and they’ve given reasons for it. So now, before the commission, that issue is now being brought up,” Mr. Aguinaldo said.

Grab Philippines has said that it cannot issue refunds where passengers did not complete the know-your-customer requirements, or undergo the identity verification process.

The transport firm added that it is “fully committed to complying with its undertakings and commitments with the PCC, and doing right by its stakeholders — especially its millions of users.”

Separately, Mr. Aguinaldo said that the PCC’s priority industries for 2023 include e-commerce and digital platforms, health and pharmaceuticals, energy and electricity, insurance, water, construction, telecommunications, food and agriculture.

In an e-mail, the PCC said that it has 16 active cases in the investigation stage, of which five have been made public. The five cases involve the industries of power, cement, shipping, telecommunication interconnection, and internet service provider (ISP) services in connection with property development.

A decision has been reached on the ISP case but it has yet to be released, it said.

It added that four are in the litigation stage or for decision by the Commission sitting en banc.

These cases involve the insurance, trade association, tourism, and medical services industries. — Revin Mikhael D. Ochave