I learned a good lesson a year or so ago from a young reporter at the New York Times, Sarah Maslin Nir, who had recently written an expose of the nail salon industry in New York. Thousands of immigrant women, mostly Asian, were being systematically ripped off by nail salon owners in order to provide fabulously inexpensive nail grooming services to middle and upperclass women in New York’s toniest neighborhoods.
While women in other major cities were paying $20 or so for a manicure, women in New York were indulging themselves for half the cost, according to the Times. Meanwhile the service providers were being paid less than the minimum wage, living in substandard housing, shuttled back and forth to work, and suffering various work-related illnesses. When you see a service being provided at less than what you would expect to pay somewhere else, said the Times reporter in an appearance at Princeton’s Present Day Club, you can be pretty sure that someone is getting ripped off.
More recently I’ve been reading about Uber, which has been a tremendous success for both its passengers and for its service providers, the car owners who put their vehicles to use as independent contractors under the loose — more or less — direction of the company’s massive computer system. But a Reuters report last summer, seconded by a Forbes report in December, noted that the ride sharing company’s fabulous success is coming at something of a cost — to investors.
The company has received more than $15 billion in outside investments since 2010, enabling it to continue to increase its market share even as it keeps losing money. The management tells investors that it will soon be raising those incredibly cheap fares and then all parties will make money. But industry analysts are not so sure. At some point rising prices could lead to decreased demand. And who knows what would happen if some established taxi cab company in town figured out a way to equip its drivers with cell phones.
So here we are enjoying a few weeks of warmth and sunshine on the unbelievably good island of Barbados. On our fourth trip here in as many winters, we know what to expect: consistently good weather (no Florida-style cold snaps down here, 900 miles from the equator as compared to 1,800 for Fort Lauderdale), miles of pristine sandy beaches, and — oh, yes — reasonable prices. A taxi ride from the airport into town costs less than $20. While there are now a few ultra chic restaurants on the island, the vast majority of white table cloth restaurants are modestly priced. It’s hard to spend more than $100 on dinner for two at a seaside restaurant with a perfect view of the ocean and the sunset.
Another telling example: We spent an afternoon at the horse races, where a round of a beer, ice water, and a small sandwich came to $7.50. We had a similar experience last year at a cricket match. The Bajans either haven’t figured out how to — or have decided not to — gouge spectators at sporting events.
We’re happy, the owners of the Coconut Court hotel we stay at every year seem happy (they show up in person at the rum punch-fueled managers’ party each Monday night), and the staff seem happy (the same ones are here year after year and the long-time returnees to the island — usually Brits or Canadians — get greeted with hugs). We eat dinners almost every night at a new restaurant instead of at the hotel. The other night we observed that we couldn’t recall a single instance of a surly waiter, or a staff person who wouldn’t go out of their way to take care of the least inconvenience.
So who’s paying the price for all these good beach vibes? I am pretty sure that a progressive labor leader could come down here (in the middle of winter with a hefty expense account, no doubt) and discover that workers could be better paid than they are. But I am also pretty sure that many workers would agree that they are better off than they would be without the tourist trade. There is certainly no indication that anyone on this island is being treated as badly as the nail salon workers on the island of Manhattan.
The better question might not be who but what. In the days preceding our departure we got some alarming news from our friends on the island. The south shore of Barbados, the area in which our hotel is located, had been impacted by a sewer blockage in an aging system. Raw effluent had begun flowing into an equally old and decrepit stormwater system. When the occasional West Indian rain squall passed through, the stormwater system overflowed, leaving foul-smelling water standing in the street and along the sidewalks.
Friends on the island (who do not live near the afflicted south coast) reported that no one dared to eat at Tapas, our favorite open-air, beachside restaurant. Don’t drink the tap water, we were advised — the same water that we have praised in previous letters from Barbados for its sparkling clarity and magnificent taste. Act as if you were traveling in the Middle East or Mexico, we were told.
As if these warnings weren’t strong enough, we were told of another alarm that had been sounded. The American embassy had issued a warning: Do not drink the water.
An aside about that embassy warning. I had discounted a lot of the other chatter, especially after some online research indicated that the situation seemed to be limited to a particular block, and that repairs were being made. People can be alarmists, after all. But the embassy, an arm of the U.S. State Department, had an air of authenticity to it — despite the credibility-straining antics of the commander in chief back in Washington.
Despite all the chatter and the warning, we flew off to Barbados on a surprisingly comfortable nonstop Jet Blue flight from Kennedy Airport. Once here we picked up the hefty Sunday Sun newspaper, which reported that the embassy warning was in fact an advisory, informing its staff that elevated bacteria levels had been found in the drinking water at the residences of some of its staff. With fussy British tourists well represented, news of any food or water-borne illness was not likely to go unreported via the grapevine.
In the Sun newspaper, the Barbados minister of foreign affairs cheekily told a reporter that the country would not engage in “tit for tat” with the U.S. and issue a similar advisory with regard to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which recently received $200 million in loans to finance repairs to its sewage system, which in the last three years has leaked some 20 million gallons into the environment. An enterprising Sun newspaper reporter went to the largest convenience store in the affected neighborhood and asked about sales of bottled water. There had been no upward spike, despite the bad publicity.
Still there is an argument to be made for taking better care of the infrastructure and the environment it serves. In the next week’s edition of the Sun a medical center took out an ad in which it urged the government to fix the problem — “whatever the cost, whatever it takes.” If necessary, the ad continued, “slap another tax on us. We’ll grumble and cuss. But in three weeks or three months we’ll be a proud country again.”
The Bajans already have lots to be proud of. I’ve been taking special note recently of public spaces and what makes them successful or not successful. Right along that part of the south coast where the sewage problem lies is one of the most successful public open spaces you could imagine, a one-mile boardwalk that follows the contours of the ocean and includes several jetties that are offer scenic overlooks. The boardwalk is filled with walkers and joggers morning, noon, and night. It’s the place were wedding photographs are taken, and last year it was the site of at least one wedding proposal. At one point it broadens into an expanded public park with a bandstand for outdoor community concerts attended by hundreds of permanent residents as well as tourists.
I’ll bet that the tourists would neither grumble nor cuss if they found out that a round of refreshments at the horse track or cricket field cost $10 instead of $7.50.
The other night we took a leisurely walk along the boardwalk to that favorite restaurant of ours, Tapas, and enjoyed a fine meal overlooking the ocean. It was crowded. We had to wait until 8 p.m. to get a table. No one got sick.