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Dying for ‘missile delivery’

South KoreaLee Seong-Wook panicked when he received a text message that a colleague was dying because of overwork. I fear that one day I will too.

A colleague named Im Gwang-Soo, 40 years old, is away from his family and two young children, working as a fast delivery driver in the capital Seoul.

“It didn’t happen because Im Gwang-Soo was in poor health,” Lee Seong Wook said. “We’ve been living together for six months. Just a few days ago he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Work hard right? Come on, we can do it’, but he fell first.”

In Seoul, South Korea, employees at a local logistics center sort out express deliveries.  Photo: CFP

In Seoul, South Korea, employees at a local logistics center sort out express deliveries. Photo: CFP

In the past, fast delivery was dubbed a “stretchy” job. In the time of Covid-19, the booming demand for online shopping has consumed the little remaining time of this profession.

Since the outbreak of the disease, 21 delivery people have died from overwork, the Korea Courier Union said.

For a long time, Korea has ranked first in the developed world in terms of working hours. The country has the term “Kwarosa” to refer to the phenomenon of sudden death due to overwork. In 2018, President Moon Jae-in reduced the maximum weekly working hours from 68 hours to 52 hours to ensure “work-life balance” and “the right to rest”, but those who delegate goods are excluded from the agreement.

The logistics industry is so developed that people in this country jokingly call it a “delivery powerhouse”. Meals are delivered anywhere in less than an hour, starting at just $8.

The huge demand has helped Coupang, an e-commerce company, grow like crazy. In a few years, the company has risen to become the “Amazon of Korea” with a huge warehouse network, 37,000 employees, a fleet of vehicles and an artificial intelligence (AI) dispatch system.

In 2019, the company developed an overnight delivery service, which guarantees delivery by 7 a.m. for orders placed the night before. A night shift worker at a Daegu warehouse said the number of packages delivered overnight per worker increased from three to seven.

Good reputation makes Coupang continue to win the market. Nearly half of Koreans have downloaded Coupang’s “Rocket Delivery” app. The company claims 99.3% of orders are delivered within 24 hours and gives it a reputation of “even surpassing Amazon”.

The term “missile delivery” was also born here. Its feature is to use AI algorithm to improve delivery time accuracy. However, it is at the expense of the sacrifices of the delivery people and the workers in the warehouse. Like Amazon, Coupang uses a “units-per-hour” (UPH) metric to measure worker productivity during work hours. Although it is stipulated that employees will be given one hour of rest for each shift (8 hours), most of its employees must continue to work during the break to maintain progress.

Go Geon, a former Coupang employee, says that when he was working in warehouse sorting, his only priority was to meet “missile delivery” deadlines, where “we were just robots. “. Last May, Go tore his left hamstring while running to meet a deadline and had to take a few days off. Then he was fired.

In addition to the hard work, the salary of the delivery staff is also not high. Kim Duk-yeon, another Coupang employee, said he had to deliver 350 orders a day, with a salary of 800 won (more than 15,000 VND) for each order.

Most of the delivery people are not official employees of the courier company. “If they die at work, the company will not be held responsible,” said Andrew Eungi Kim, a sociology professor at Korea University.

Jang Deok-joon's father knelt in front of South Korean lawmakers demanding an investigation into his son's death.  Photo: BBC.

Jang Deok-joon’s father knelt in front of South Korean lawmakers demanding an investigation into his son’s death. Photo: CFP.

In October 2020, a Coupang delivery man named Jang Deok-joon, 27, who died after finishing his job, was diagnosed with a heart attack. Before that, he worked in a courier warehouse in Daegu for more than a year, mainly responsible for delivering goods.

When Jang Deok-joon’s family came to Coupang to discuss the matter, the person in charge said that his death had nothing to do with the company. Jang Deok-joon’s parents refused to give in. They traveled across the country in a delivery van with the slogan “Coupang killed my son” and brought their grief to the Korean parliament. Jang Deok-joon’s father even knelt down and begged lawmakers to look at his son’s death: “My son is dead, and I will let the world know about it. I want to find out what’s going on. happened”.

In the end, Jang Deok-joon was said to have died from overwork and President Moon Jae-in also began calling for radical reform of the working conditions of delivery workers.

These deaths don’t affect Coupang much. Most of the delivery people are seasonal workers, hired through an app called Coupunch the night before, or on temporary contracts, which often last several months. In other words, most of the contracts that employees enter into are with independent agents acting as intermediaries, rather than with the company itself. This leaves them unprotected by law.

A fast delivery man goes on strike in central Seoul.  Photo: CFP

A fast delivery man goes on strike in central Seoul, September 2021. Photo: CFP

Lee Seong-Wook has not seen his daughter for nearly half a year, he works nearly 16 hours a day. He earns about 210,000 won (4 million VND), but this amount does not include taxes, gas, phone and fines for late delivery. I’ll still get up early tomorrow and repeat all this. “At this rate, I’ll be exhausted too.”

Lee Seong Wook is fighting to change Korea’s deadly work culture. He is the leader of the express labor union and works hard to organize protests to help his colleague Im Gwang-Soo. This man had been in a coma for two months. After a recent surgery, the doctor said his chances of survival had increased by 20%.

“We hope to rest in the evening and want to be good family men. That’s why we have to fight,” said Lee Seong Wook.

Vy Trang (Follow qq)

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