This last decade Portugal has experienced one of the biggest booms in tourism anywhere in the world, culminating in the Northern city of Porto winning European Best Destination in 2017. I loved it so much that I decided to move here.
But with any situation like this, there will be people trying to make a quick buck. Some bad behaviour is experienced and businesses will try to take advantage of you. So what should you do if you've got issues?
Step in the “Complaints Book”, or in Portuguese “Livro de Reclamações”.
Every legitimate business must have one of these books. It is a physical book, A4 sized, and also available online. This includes private run AirBnB lodgings as part of their licensing requirements. Even government agencies, municipalities, fire stations, EVERYTHING.
Every business has a designated Competent Authority which oversees and regulates their practice. If there is no singular government agency for this then the default regulator is the Ministry of Justice. The power of this book is that if you feel you have a valid reason for an official complaint (I will explain what ‘valid' means) then you must feel free to write in the book.
Moreover, each business must also display this poster visibly either in the shop window or at the payment counter which displays the business entity's legal name and which authority governs their business practice. These can be filled in either by hand or typed.
Consequences of withholding of the Complaints Book.
If the shop refuses to give you the book just call the police, telephone number 112. Seriously. Each business entity can be liable for fines up to €15,000 for refusing to let a customer complain because it is deemed a concealment of fraudulent practice. Alternatively the police have the power to close the establishment!
What happens when you write in the book?
The Complaints Book is bi-lingual Portuguese/English but is allowed to be filled in whichever language you want, though if it is not recognisably one of the major European languages (Portuguese, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German) then you may need to indicate it somewhere on the form so the authorities can find someone to translate it for them.
You will need to provide your personal details and contact details if you wish to receive notification on the progress of your complaint. You do not have to be a resident of Portugal to use the Complaints Book, literally anyone can write in it if the reason is valid. If you write in the physical book, a staff member must also sign the form to state they have witnessed your claim.
There is space for the business to write whatever defence to the claim they have. Just let them write what they want, as the business Regulator will be the arbitrator in the issue at hand.
A carbon sheet is used to triplicate the sheet you write on. One copy is retained by you, one copy by the business establishment, and the final copy is sent to the regulator within 5 working days. The regulator will then have 10 working days whether to uphold your complaint and force the business to redress your issues.
It will be very natural for the business manager to plead to try and resolve the issue before or while you write. No doubt the number of complaints features in their performance metrics but where there is justification I believe hard feedback is required. If you do find yourself in the situation where you have started writing but decide not to finish it off, you will need to cross off your complaint (two diagonal lines across the page) and write “complaint cancelled” or “reclamação anulada”.
While emotions can run high, you need to try and think objectively about whether something is worthy of an official complaint. For instance “my steak was overcooked” or “the waiter gave me a nasty face as he served me” will probably be totally rejected.
Don't go making a mockery of the book and requesting it trigger happily. This is a serious measure to protect consumer interests. Please keep it that way.
It is mostly obvious if you are being cheated out of something by a restaurant or shop. E.g. refusal to issue a receipt, prices not matching advertisements or shelf labels etc.
But it becomes tricker in sectors which don't really have consistency across international borders. For instance, in Portugal all AirBnB or hostel providers not only must show the red poster as shown above, but there must be a fire extinguisher, night glow evacuation and emergency telephone signs clearly visible, and instruction manuals including the manager's contact details written in 4 languages, two of which are Portuguese and English.
If any of these are absent you should deem this to be a valid complaint. (Because if your stuff gets stolen while you're there and they are not a legal listing…it will be a lot of hassle to sort that one out!)
I have threatened to write in the book once before, when the Immigration Agency (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras) ignored the fact that they cannot ask for birth certificates to originate from a particular country if you're not born there. They eventually backed down after the threat of writing in the Complaints Book, plus the knowledge that the Solvit by European Commission had been alerted to their duplicity and they finally accepted my document.
My second experience where I wrote in the book was when my internet provider was installing the fibre connection to my house and left a rather big hole in my wall. Rather than repairing it they just left it as it was.
After 8 weeks of complaining to Vodafone customer services, the first 4 of which was wasted because the lady in the store merely pretended to register my complaint, they had deemed there was ‘nothing they can do' and closed my case. After I felt I had exhausted that option I wrote in the online version of the Complaints Book.
The next day a man with a bucket of cement came and patched up the wall in 20 minutes.
The Complaints Book is a very powerful instrument for your protection. It can be used in all measure of life with justification, though consumers must also play their part to not abuse the system.