Labor Minister Lee Jae-kap on Wednesday pledged continued attention to the working conditions of delivery workers, as months of increased demand due to COVID-19 have pushed them to their limits and led to at least seven deaths from overwork so far this year.
“Parcel delivery has become an essential service in people’s lives,” Lee said at a sorting center in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday.
“We are now taking it for granted that ordered items come to our doorstep the next day, but we know that this is possible with efforts from parcel delivery workers, drivers and parcel loaders in the background.”
He made the remarks during an on-site inspection of a CJ Logistics distribution center, which handles packages before they are delivered to locations across the country.
Overworked delivery workers became a social issue in South Korea last week, after some 4,000 unionized workers threatened to stop sorting parcels ahead of the Chuseok holiday in protest of long working hours and heavy workloads.
Chuseok is one of the busiest times of the year for logistics companies, as Koreans exchange gifts mostly using door-to-door delivery services.
After a government arbitration process, the companies agreed to increase the headcount for parcel sorting, delivery and other steps in the process by 10,000 a day until Oct. 16.
Major delivery services including CJ Logistics and Lotte Global Logistics also pledged to halt late-night delivery services and protect workers’ health.
They pledged to provide workers with free health checks every year starting in 2021 and invest a total of 300 billion won ($258 million) to expand automated systems.
During his visit, Minister Lee once again called on the companies to keep their promises and better protect their workers.
According to the Transport Ministry, courier services usually encounter a 10 percent greater workload than usual during the Chuseok holiday. But the load for this year’s holiday period is forecast to rise more than 30 percent, with added pressure due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The virus outbreak also raised the number of parcels delivered in the first half to 1.6 billion, already more than half of the 2.8 billion boxes delivered during all of 2019. This extra workload has resulted in parcel delivery workers handling extremely heavy workloads for months.
A report from the Democratic Party of Korea said parcel delivery service workers work around 71.3 hours a week and earn around 4.6 million won a month. They take home around 2.3 million won a month after work-related expenses are taken into account, the report added.
Parcel delivery service is one of the sectors that were exempted from the government’s 52-hour workweek cap, introduced in 2018. This year alone seven parcel delivery workers have died from overwork, as online shopping surged amid the coronavirus outbreak.
An alliance of 67 civic and labor groups formed to protect the rights of delivery workers said Wednesday that delivery service companies were hiring fewer workers than promised. They said workers were still forced to work on weekends and continued to be burdened with heavy workloads.
“Parcel volume for this Chuseok has increased since before, but we were always allowed to rest on Sunday,” said Kim Tae-wan, head of the Parcel Delivery Workers’ Solidarity Union, in a press briefing with representatives of the alliance on Wednesday.
“These chaebol parcel delivery service companies are just trying to make more money. They don’t care whether delivery workers die on the job.”
The task force claimed that only 362 additional workers, 338 at CJ Logistics and the rest at Lotte Global Logistics, were dispatched to sorting centers. This contradicted CJ Logistics’ earlier announcement that it had dispatched 1,200 more workers to its sorting centers.
“From the prolonged coronavirus outbreak, courier service workers are too fatigued, but we have heard that some places are still requiring parcel delivery workers to sort or load parcels on Sundays,” Lee added during the visit Wednesday.
“I urge delivery service companies to responsibly lead the scene and ensure that such things no longer occur.”
By Ko Jun-tae (email@example.com