Bargaining with Street Vendors – Exploitation or Prudence?

Today, a video was brought to my attention through WhatsApp and it wasn’t difficult to find the same on YouTube. It carries a message which at first seemed to be perfectly valid. The comments on this YouTube video also showed that many or most viewers agreed with it. However, if we think a little deeper, like everything else in this world, it isn’t as simple as that. To make this discussion easier, it will be good to spend two minutes watching this video.

 

For those who are unable to watch this video for whatever reason, it is about a rich man bargaining with a street vendor to reduce the price of tender coconut. When the vendor refuses to bring down the price pointing out how he has been in the sun all day to sell this, the rich man calls the vendor a thief and walks away. Later, when the same person walks back with a bottle of some soft drink, the vendor asks him if he bargained on the price of the drink (which turns out to be higher than that of the tender coconut). He then asks why bargain only with the poor on streets and not with rich in superstores and malls. The rich man agrees with the point and feels guilty. The video ends with a message of how bargaining with the poor is a form of exploitation and how, by doing so, we are a part of the problem of poverty. 

 

I do agree that the street vendor is putting in a lot of effort and, in this case, his price also is not very unreasonable – especially when compared to the bottled, unhealthy soft drink which is undoubtedly overpriced. I also have no doubt that the poor are vulnerable and subject to exploitation. It almost goes without saying, that we should not exploit anybody (the poor included), because when we exploit, we are always exploiting their weakness. As long as we are talking about such broad and high principles, we can speak in absolute terms. However, the closer we get to reality, the more factors come into play, and the less we are able to take an unqualified stand. Hence the need of this elaborate discussion rather than merely giving a thumbs-up to this video.
Before we take up the specific case of this video, let us analyze why people bargain. In some situations, it might be an attempt to exploit the inability of the poor vendor to enforce the fair price that he is demanding. If so, the behavior is undoubtedly despicable. (Is there a need to specify that this is in reference to my own moral standards and may not hold for somebody else?). However, what about the case in which the poor vendor is demanding an unfair price? He might be making an attempt to exploit the ignorance of the rich person. Isn’t the latter justified in making an attempt to save himself from being fooled? Take another example of a cab driver trying to exploit the need or urgency of a person who needs to get to the hospital by demanding a high fare. The customer might be willing to pay a higher fare in a metered cab because he trusts the meter, and might bargain with a poorer, local taxi driver whom he might suspect of asking an unreasonable fare.
This suspicion is often justified because many a times drivers of auto-rikshaws and cabs charge based on the customer’s knowledge of the route or his urgency (e.g., exorbitant fares during night or when it is raining). Many street vendors also give you a price for their goods based on whether you walk to their shop or drive in a luxury car (i.e., based on their reading of how much you might be willing to pay for it). So if you are a rich person or has at least given that impression to the vendor, if you don’t bargain effectively, you might end up paying much more than the person who bought the same item before you. On a branded item with a marked price (as in the case of a metered taxi), you are at least sure that everybody is paying the same price.
I don’t think it is any more right to exploit a rich man’s ignorance or need than it is to exploit a poor man’s weakness. Also, it is no more wrong for a rich man to defend against such exploitation by bargaining than it is for a poor vendor to refuse to sell his goods at the lower price being bargained for. While we must allow the poor man his rights, we should not deny the rich man his. The rich man in this video is definitely in the wrong – but that is not for bargaining or for refusing to buy the coconut except on terms acceptable to him; he is in the wrong for abusing the vendor and calling him a thief. It is to be noted that this fault has no relation to the act of bargaining (this would be wrong even if he had bought the item at double the price that was asked for), and has been included in the video only to show the customer as a bad person and to make the propaganda more convincing.
It is this propaganda element that I found most offensive in this video. It is not difficult to take a video in which a tender coconut vendor on a deserted highway abuses a polite, thirsty, exhausted rich customer and refuses to reduce the price to a reasonable level. (Note that in the video we have no way of knowing whether the price being asked for is fair or not. In Bangalore, the price of tender coconut is Rs 15 to Rs 20 while the vendor is asking for Rs 30. In Kerala, the price is Rs 25 to Rs 30. I don’t know of the price in other places, but depending on where this is happening, the price might be justified or not. It depends on scarcity of tender coconut in that place, transportation costs, etc., but not on how much a bottle of branded soft drink costs). Isn’t it interesting to see how the hero and villain roles have now been reversed?
In general, it is naive to take such videos at face value, fall for the propaganda in them, accept the message in them without questioning, and sharing them to the peril of more naive persons. It doesn’t hurt to give some serious thought, to separate propaganda and real substance, and decide for ourselves what we want to believe. This holds true in the case of this video, and holds true in the case of this blog post. Of course, I know that readers of avalokanam are already in this category!
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