Uber CEO’s Poverty Tourism Cannot Fix What Capitalism Has Broken by Design

Every once in a while, I come across the sentiment that if CEOs actually spent time doing what their lowest-paid workers do, then they’d be more inclined to go along with raises or better working conditions. The reality show franchise Undercover Boss is based on this idea, and it’s often pointed out on social media that the work done by a warehouse package-runner is far more difficult than anything Jeff Bezos does. This caught my attention because the CEO of Uber has been getting press for his brief stint “moonlighting” as a driver. He announced this in a Wall Street Journal puff piece back in April, but I guess he wanted more press, because now we’re getting articles about his “most nightmarish experience” while cosplaying as a peasant:

When asked the most nightmarish rider experience he had as an Uber driver, Khosrowshahi said that it wasn’t the riders that gave him issues — it was delivering food.

“I was trying to deliver food and I couldn’t find where to drop it off,” Khosrowshahi told The Wall Street Journal. “Trying to figure out the maze of apartment complexes was a challenge.”

Navigating large apartment complexes has been a pain point the company, an Uber spokesperson told Insider, adding that the company has tried to address this by providing users with more accurate drop-off pins.

Uber Eats wasn’t all bad, though.

“The most fun was delivering food to a touch football game,” Khosrowshahi said. “I was like, ‘Where’s the building I’m supposed to be delivering to?’ It was a field. There was a bunch of dudes.”

Still, Khosrowshahi seems to be aware that Uber drivers face a series of challenges during their shifts.

Improving the company’s working conditions for its drivers starts with corporate Uber employees “using our products” and “getting in the shoes of a driver,” he added.

I think I should say here that as long as we’re going to have CEOs the way we currently do, they absolutely should have to do the worst-paid work in their company. The harms done by hierarchy do seem to be mitigated, at least a little, by those at the top finding some way to empathize with those at the bottom. Unfortunately, this kind of empathy tends to be weak and insubstantial, or even entirely pretended, for appearances only.

See, companies already know how badly their workers are doing. There wasn’t some mystery that just had to be solved by the CEO going undercover as a lowly worker. The workers had already been talking about the problems they faced for years by the time Khosrowshahi had the brilliant idea of doing the work himself to “find out” why drivers didn’t seem to like their jobs.

CEOs don’t consider their employees to be people. Not really. They can’t be taken at their word when they describe problems with the company – those problems only count if the CEO witnesses them first-hand. As appalling as this is, it also underscores the two biggest problems with this misguided bid for improvement via capitalist empathy.

The first, which I already mentioned, is that most if not all CEOs know their workers are suffering, and routinely try to increase that suffering. When they try to justify their obscene wealth by talking about the “risk” they take on as owners and investors, it’s never a risk to their health, or their ability to afford a home. The real risk is losing enough money that they have to work for a living. Their biggest fear, and the risk for which they demand all the reward in the world, is becoming a worker like the people they exploit for their day job. I’ve said this before, but based on the actions of capitalists across the generations, if a worker is happy and fulfilled, that’s seen as proof that they’re not being sufficiently exploited.

The second problem is that there’s no way poverty tourism like this can ever actually generate a true understanding of what it’s like to live as a low-wage worker. The bosses all know that this is a temporary thing, like doing a “boot camp” program for a couple months, where you might have to suffer, but it’s an experience you’re taking on for your own benefit, knowing that you will be going back to your normal, luxurious life at the end of it. These CEOs do the work, and then go back to their mansion at the end of the day. They have the best healthcare money can buy, they can afford childcare, and they pay someone else to do their shopping, cooking, and cleaning. If they attempted to live on minimum wage for a month, or even a year, they would still be doing so with the knowledge that after a set period of time, their ordeal would be over.

People who are actually working those jobs to make ends meet have no such promise. The best most of them can hope for, as a “reward”, is that the job, bad conditions and low wages included, will still be there for them in the future. Even a modest retirement is a distant fantasy for a growing number of workers, sickness means loss of savings and/or debt, and rent just keeps on rising.

The only way to truly allow a CEO to experience what workers’ lives are like, is to put them in that situation, and to take away all hope of ever returning to their fortunes save by the same means available to those workers. That, however, would be considered a grave injustice in our society, no matter how they came by their wealth. So long as we have this kind of extreme hierarchy, there will always be a gap in understanding between the rich and the poor.

Empathy, while hugely important, cannot overcome the extreme divisions of the somewhat-soft caste system maintained by capitalism. As I said before, I’m in favor of CEOs doing low-wage work to see what it’s like, but that can’t be enough to fix our society, because capitalism requires the existence of grinding poverty in order to function. The only thing that has reliably improved life for working people is working people, working together, as unions continue to demonstrate.

Thanks to sonofrojblake for putting me onto this song, covered here by William Shatner.



  1. says

    Oh, no slight was intended! I saw the lyrics and looked up the song, at which point Tegan remembered that William Shatner did a cover, so we watched that too, and we decided it was better.

    Changed it, if that helps.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    No offence taken, it just made me chuckle – not sure how much more direct I could have been. It’s a terrific song – Jarvis Cocker is a national treasure. I don’t care much for the Shatner version, because the original is such a pivotal bit of culture to me. It’s so cheerfully, upbeatly scathing and hateful of rich slumming scum, and so pointedly nails the difference between the comfortable life and the constant desperation of deprivation that is becoming more and more, well… common. I read with some surprise on Wikipedia that it’s only the Shatner version that got it attention outside Europe.

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