I killed Superman
I killed Super-man,
and how ironic
That I'd be the bad guy,
kryptonite, the green chronic
Before I moved to the developed world, I worked at a fairly sketchy startup that had branches in a few developing countries. It was my first job after university, and the staff were pretty impressive (on paper). For the most part, we had graduates holding international degrees, which is considered incredibly prestigious in my home country.
The details and eventually failure of the business were interesting, but for another time. Instead, I wanted to talk about someone that worked there.
For the business to function, we required a fair number of staff to deliver goods every hour. The orders would come in with little warning, and we had very tight timelines. To make things worse, traffic could get extremely bad in this city, with ten minute journeys easily extending to 1-2 hour slogs depending on the time of day. And on top of it all, we had to try turn a profit on items with a very low margin, so our team of drivers consisted entirely of the most minimum wage people we could possibly find.
Enter Mostafa. He's Superman in this story. He does not actually die or get into an accident, in case you were worried about reading something extremely grim.
I didn't name him Superman - that was a name that management and the other riders gave him. I saw riders now instead of drivers, because this was the secret sauce we used to hit our daily targets. We used motorcyclists for the vast majority of our orders, because... well, the truth is, the fastest way to get around the city was to weave through traffic incredibly dangerously. It's a common practice where I'm from, so I didn't think too much about this.
What did strike me as concerning was that every shipment that looked like it'd be a little bit dicey would go straight to Superman. In fact, this is why he was called Superman - it was because he was constantly pulling off deliveries that none of the other staff could, by recklessly endangering his life and absolutely flooring the accelerator every day. I rode alongside one of these guys when they were slowly weaving through traffic to drop off some flyers, and it was immediately apparent to me that just asking someone to be on a motorcycle in the country wasn't safe (a fact borne out by data), let alone asking them to speed.
Now things take on a slightly more grim tone. Management called him Superman to praise him for risking his life... to what? Ship some boxes around in an hour instead of two? And I really mean it when I say that he was risking his life. The road fatality rate in my home country is more than three times higher than that of most developed countries when you aren't zooming around at max speed in peak traffic.
"That's why we call him Superman," they'd say in some sickening, obviously insincere attempt at doing awe, "he always saves the day".
The manager for our country's branch at the time was a Harvard graduate, and was essentially in charge of our operations across the entire country. All in all, an incredibly impressive corporate persona, particularly in this part of the world, where the cost of the plane ticket to Harvard was more than most people would see in many months - indeed, a quick calculation right now reveals that it would have taken Superman ten months salary (assuming he spends no money on anything) to afford a one-way trip.
The manager had a LinkedIn profile had the usual stuff about being deeply committed to the good of society. However, when I raised the two major social harms we were committing (the staff were illegally paid below minimum wage and, you know, fucking risking their lives), that was the only time they lost their temper with me. "We have no choice!", they would say, collecting anywhere between 20-40 times this guy's salary.
I didn't know what else to do, so I quietly worked for a bit, then left a few months later for largely unrelated reasons. I'm still ashamed of that. I'd like to think that these days I would have blown the whistle somehow, but I didn't back then, and I've got to come to terms with that. I think the saddest thing that I remember is how management would buy all the ground staff KFC every Friday, and how desperately pleased the ground staff were with that. As if they were so used to being exploited that they considered their lot in life pretty good if it was exploitation plus the cheapest fast food we could find.
No one died, but that had nothing to do with me. I helped us play Russian roulette with their lives because some dickhead CEO in another country wanted to pretend to be a real businessman with other people's money, and that dude demanded we rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic slightly faster. What would have happened if Superman did get hit by a car? How much guilt would I bear for that? Do I bear any less guilt because this particular chamber of the gun was empty?
Reflecting, I wonder how often I kill Superman right now, in my current job. It's easier to think about the consequences of my actions when they're so clear - death was obviously on the table for Superman. But now I enable a dysfunctional system even though I don't have to - realistically, I wouldn't be fired if I started calling a manager out every time they lied with our labor protections, but I'd quickly become seen as "difficult" or "confrontational". That threat is enough to keep me largely quiet and civil, while we shuffle other people's money (drawing most of it as salary for ourselves) and send our colleagues into existential crises around the meaning of their work-lives, take them away from their children, betray society in a thousand small ways.
I see other immigrants, locked into jobs they despise, paid a fraction of what the rest of us earn, because no one is willing to stand up to an executive in front of everyone and say "You can't treat people like that just because you have leverage - not while I'm here."
I've worked with researchers who have fudged data via p-hacking and deliberate stupidity, despite ostensibly working in the healthcare sector, essentially stealing millions from the public and harming patients on top of that, and no one says anything because the problem is too big, and they'll just get in trouble. Or abused their students for labor. Conned confused 20 year olds into PhDs by targeting them when they were bereft of direction.
I know a few people who have become so stressed from work and the questions surrounding how to have a meaningful life that they've become chronically ill - they tap out entirely, lose the ability to sleep for long periods, develop nervous tics, or otherwise endure enough harm to make you weep to see it.
I'm not sure what the right thing to do is. Morally, I'd feel a lot better speaking up. Practically, I suspect that I might lose my job, would definitely lose all chances of promotion, and all to get ignored anyway. But I don't think silence is the best we can do, and frankly, sometimes I've done worse than silence for my own selfish ends.
Superman was all right in the end, but I worry about the universe where he wasn't.
“Do you understand what I'm saying?" shouted Moist. "You can't just go around killing people!"
"Why Not? You Do." The golem lowered his arm.
"What?" snapped Moist. "I do not! Who told you that?"
"I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People," said the golem calmly.
"I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr Pump. I may be–– all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!"
"No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”