Who Knew?  Bananas and Inequality

by Terrance Hunsley

In many stores you can buy a bunch of bananas for less than two bucks. At least the non-organic ones. These bananas come from far away, are very carefully grown, harvested, transported, and placed on shelves for us to inspect and buy. So we know that the people who do all that are not paid very much. The person who works at our local grocery store might get paid maybe $15/hr if they’re lucky. Not enough to rent an apartment and pay for the necessities of life, unless you partner with someone to share the costs. 

But that banana is valuable to us, a pleasure to eat and important source of nutrients. We could afford to pay twice as much for that banana and similar products. If the price were to double we would still buy them. 

So every time we buy bananas, our lifestyle is being subsidized by the worker who is not paid enough to live independently in the community. Because there are many of us who buy bananas, and buy them regularly, the result is a whole category of people who need to work to sustain themselves, but are not paid enough to do so.  A recent Fraser Institute study tells us we don’t really need to worry about these people because 90% of them live with family or share accommodation, so they don’t really need the money. Duh… And besides it’s only temporary since only half of them are over 25. Double duh..

But these minimum wagers serve us in other ways as well. Consider all the Amazon workers, Uber drivers and health care personal service workers. They are paid a couple of dollars an hour more, and they know not to complain about their working conditions because there is a layer of banana workers just below them, desperate to move up. 

The gap between the bottom and top half of the wage scale has been widening for the past forty years. Lots of people are getting rich on wages. There is lots of money in Canadian society. Look at how much is spent for housing, for expensive upscale automobiles, for international tourism. But we don’t think we can afford fifty cents more for our bananas.

Not providing workers a living wage and decent working conditions helps to keep our bananas cheap. It also helps the Walmart family to become arguably the richest family in the world. It makes warehousing of consumer goods and of old people in long term care, among the most profitable industries in the world. But they are built on a foundation of cheap labour and exploitation. And when workers gain some traction because of an aging population and increased demand, employers often try to bring in cheap labour from abroad to undercut their bargaining power.

But those bananas are good.  

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