I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about value and what it really means. There are so many layers to it.
When we were in Jaipur staying with B’s family, a woman would come daily to do some housework. She washes the floor with a rough cloth on her hands and knees daily, helps with laundry weekly, and washes dishes on occasion, if there happens to be some in the sink. I would guess that she spends an average of 2 hours per day doing housework. Her compensation for her work is 600 rupees per month, plus an occasional cash bonus here and there, some cash for birthdays in her family, and some gifts on major Indian holidays. 600 rupees translates into roughly $12 USD. For my math challenged friends, 50 rupees is about $1 USD.
I’m sure that someone better versed in economics can give all kinds of solid answers about supply and demand, and how markets determine prices. But sometimes, I just feel like prices don’t always correlate to value.
I feel that while that supply-demand system seems to work in a predictable way, for the most part, there is a deeper question about value at work.
I have a hard time navigating through the Indian value system sometimes. It pains me that house cleaners (servants, as they are called here, which makes me shudder…but maybe it is better not to candycoat what they are?) make such a pittance for the physical work they do. It pains me that a bicycle rickshaw driver pedals around in heat of 95+ degrees and gets paid such a pittance.
Yesterday, I walked to a market in search of better priced and fresher produce. It was a fixed price vendor, the prices were actually labeled, and the whole process was very transparent, which I appreciated on one level. The prices were similar to what I’d been finding near me, so while it was not better priced, at least the cashier couldn’t overcharge me without me noticing it.
I bought a few other things, like a bucket and some clothespins. Since it was over 95 yesterday, I didn’t really want to walk all the way back home carrying my load. I resolved in my mind that if I saw a bicycle rickshaw, I would take it. Sometimes, I get lazy and just leave my decision making to fate.
I started walking along, and met a free bicycle rickshaw almost immediately. It was an older man, probably in his mid-50s, with a bit of graying hair. He was thin, and he looked pretty tired. This was around 3pm, when it actually seems to feel hottest here. I called him brother, and asked him how much he’d charge to go to our apartment complex. He quoted me 30 rupees, which is higher than what B said it would probably be, but still within his acceptable range, so I hopped in with my bucket and bulging bag of produce. I’d just spent 95 rupees on onions, garlic, spinach, tomatoes, an orange, two eggs, and a few bananas. My bucket and clothespins were 105 rupees.
It was only a 5 minute ride, and along the way, I was thinking about what his life might be like.
I wondered about what led to his becoming a bicycle rickshaw driver. Did he have no other options? It is hard work, especially in the heat. He wasn’t carrying anything with him. What did he have for lunch? He probably needs to consume a LOT of calories to do his job. Can he afford it? How many family members does he provide for at home?
I also became conscious of having my water bottle with me. Should I offer him some? I don’t think people normally do such a thing here, but what do I know? I decided I would offer it to him, because if I were in his shoes, I would want someone to offer some to me in this crazy heat. I also considered paying him a lot more, because I just don’t know if the equivalent of 60 cents is a really fair wage for his labor.
This is what I mean by value, I guess. What is the value of that bicycle rickshaw driver’s efforts? Is it only the supply/demand relationship of what he’s willing to accept and what I’m willing to pay? What if what he is willing to accept is too low? What if supply and demand does not = someone being able to make ends meet? What if it is only because there are so many people who are poor that the supply far outstrips the demand of richer people who don’t want to walk home in the heat? What if he only accepts 30 rupees for his work, because he knows I can turn around and find someone else who can do it cheaper?
I wrote in my last blog post that I’ve heard lots of people say how great it is living in India, because having servants here is so cheap. But again, I have to say that it is only so cheap because there are enough desperately poor people who have no other alternative. It just sounds like unconscious exploitation of people in desperate circumstances to me.
The new pope, Pope Francis, commented recently on the tragedy in Bangladesh where a building collapsed and killed hundreds of people. The main victims were garment producers, and the factories renting the building are probably better known by their non-euphemistic name, sweatshops. The Pope said, “Living on [50 USD] a month, that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labor.” Indeed. Supply and demand tells us that is the value of their work. Is it?
The other thing that I have not mentioned so far is that in many instances in India and elsewhere, foreigners get quoted a much higher price than locals. This is another thing I wrestle with in my mind. Should the price be on a sliding scale? Should the people who CAN pay more do so? Should the vendors have the right to ask more from some people than from others, or is this unfair? Should they size me up without really knowing me?
Also, what usually ends up happening is that the vendors then start to build up a sense of disrespect/resentment for the foreigners, because maybe they just don’t understand the real value of a rupee and are careless. They are naive, and it’s easy to take advantage of them. I see this as the biggest downside of this dynamic. The psychological result when a person knowingly mistreats another person is that dislike begins to form, and respect for the person who was mistreated is diminished. This isn’t good, either.
Is it an exercise of humility to ignore these thoughts and just do what seems right anyway?
I didn’t pay the rickshaw driver more; I was just too undecided and my default was to just pay him what we agreed on. Maybe I’ll get more clarity later, and I’ll know what is a better option next time.
But I gave him some of my water. It took him a minute to comprehend what I meant when I held the bottle out to him and asked him in my poorly pronounced Hindi if he wanted some. He drank out of it the common way in India–holding the bottle well above his mouth and glug-glugging it straight down his throat without closing his mouth at all. He handed it back, and we went our separate ways. Me into the gated apartment complex we’re currently staying in, and him back out into traffic and heat.
I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who happens to read this blog if they have had similar experiences, or have suggestions.
For further reading, I just discovered this piece by Indian author Chetan Bhagat, and felt it was worth including.