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[News Focus] Plight of couriers continues amid pandemic

Another delivery worker dies as packages pile up

An alliance for the rights of parcel delivery workers stage a memorial march Saturday in central Seoul for delivery workers who died from overwork and fatigue. (Yonhap)
An alliance for the rights of parcel delivery workers stage a memorial march Saturday in central Seoul for delivery workers who died from overwork and fatigue. (Yonhap)
On Oct. 12, another courier died after working long shifts with little sleep.

It was the 10th fatality this year linked to overwork among parcel delivery workers in Korea, according to a coalition of 67 civic groups and labor unions formed to improve their working conditions.

Delivery workers, despite being hailed as heroes for their contributions to the public’s well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak, continue being pushed to their physical limits with little protection from labor laws while e-commerce companies reap the profits from a surge in online sales, the coalition laments.

“Kim (the deceased) was confirmed to have no preexisting conditions. This obviously is a death from overwork,” the group said in a joint statement Monday. 


A fatal job?

The deceased was a 36-year-old man surnamed Kim working for Hanjin Express, the country’s second-largest express delivery firm after CJ Logistics. He was found dead at his home Oct. 12, after failing to report to work that morning.

In a text message he sent four days prior to his death, the man complained about his workload. He said he clocked as many as 22 hours a day to fulfill his delivery quotas and worked long hours even on holidays.

“I will be home by 5 a.m., and I have to eat, wash and then get to the terminal right away to start sorting parcels,” read the message, which was released by the above-mentioned coalition of groups.

“Yesterday, I arrived home at 2 a.m. and headed out at 5 a.m. I know I am making money, but I’m just too exhausted.”

The coalition said that Kim delivered up to 400 parcels a day, an almost impossible-to-meet quota, while Hanjin argues the number to be around 200, slightly below the average of its workers.

The company also denies that Kim had no preexisting conditions, citing an autopsy report that he died of preexisting cardiovascular problems, and says his death should not be assumed to be from overwork.

Despite the disputes, Kim’s death appears to confirm a disturbing trend in the courier service industry that has been enjoying a coronavirus-driven boom in sales -- the sudden deaths of workers.

On Oct. 8, four days before Kim died, a 40-something delivery worker from CJ Logistics died on the job after complaining about difficulty breathing. He was the fifth delivery worker associated with CJ to have died this year.

On Oct. 12, the day Kim died, a 20-something day worker at Coupang, the country’s largest social commerce firm, also died.

Industry data shows parcel delivery volume is up 20 percent this year from a year earlier. CJ Logistics reported a 4.5 percent increase year-on-year to 2.65 trillion won ($2.32 billion) in second-quarter revenues, while Hanjin saw a 4 percent growth in its sales to 527.1 billion won during the same period.

As deaths have continued, Labor Minister Lee Jae-kap on Monday ordered a special inspection into labor conditions at major express delivery firms.


Legal status of couriers

Experts say the root cause of problems in the parcel delivery industry lies in the legal status of courier workers.

Barring exceptional cases, delivery workers are not directly employed by the firms they work for. They are subcontractors who earn commissions on each parcel they deliver.

This is why the workers, despite being under the tight control of the companies they work for, are not subject to the 52-hour workweek rule and can be exempt from mandatory industrial accident insurance.

When COVID-19 struck and consumers resorted to online shopping out of virus fears, courier workers were thrown into a pressure-cooker system with little protection from basic labor laws, experts have pointed out.

According to a report from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, parcel delivery service workers put in around 71.3 hours a week to 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.

“Labor without rest is a present continuous phase for delivery workers,” said Noh Gwang-pyo, director of the Korea Labor and Society Institute.

“Delivery service firms have no plans to supply additional manpower, and no solutions are being prepared at the moment. Logistics firms are hiding in the shadows, saying it is not their responsibility.”

While companies only pay commission on deliveries fulfilled, the individual delivery contractors have to sort parcels as well as deliver them. According to the coalition for parcel delivery workers, couriers sort packages for seven to nine hours a day before even starting the deliveries.

The workers’ exemption from mandatory subscription to industrial accident insurance also came into the spotlight after the series of recent deaths. Hanjin Express deliveryperson Kim also didn’t have the insurance.

If workers want coverage, they and their contract partner, such as Hanjin, should split the monthly premiums 50-50. If they don’t wish to do so, they can apply for an exemption.

Workers in other professions are entitled to the insurance with the monthly premiums to be fully paid by employers. According to a survey released by the Korea Labor Institute in May, 84.3 percent of delivery workers had asked for an exemption.

“We are identifying a lot of exemption requests made from the coercion of employers rather than workers’ free will,” said Rep. Lim Jong-seong of the ruling Democratic Party. “And this is why we need government measures to raise the insured rate and inspect those requesting exemptions.”


‘Stop the death streak’

As calls for better protection of delivery workers grow, the Labor Ministry and political circles are paying attention. Politicians are discussing ways to enforce the 52-hour workweek and industrial accident insurance subscriptions.

Workers, however, demand more. They want swift action to prevent more deaths.

The coalition of delivery workers’ groups urged logistics companies to relieve the parcel sorting burden from delivery workers immediately, as they had promised in September.

Before the peak gifting season of Chuseok in late September and early October, workers had threatened to stop the sorting work, demanding the companies hire more workers. The firms had agreed to do so, but that promise was not kept, the group says.

A labor union of parcel delivery workers called for a raise in delivery fees charged to consumers in order to improve the inhumane working conditions of the workers. Low delivery fees are one of the reasons workers clock up long hours to make a living, they said.

“The cost of everything has risen for the past several decades, but the delivery fee given to workers has remained almost exactly the same at around 700 won per parcel,” said Kim Se-kyu, a spokesperson for the Parcel Delivery Workers’ Solidarity Union.

“That’s why we had to deliver thousands of parcels for numerous hours to earn a sustainable living wage.”

Kim also called for a law governing the logistics industry to protect the basic rights of couriers. He called the sector a “lawless front” where big firms have an edge over delivery contractors.

“For the most part, companies need to be prepared to fairly compensate delivery workers for the work they do,” he added. “Without such determination, many more workers will be dying on duty moving forward.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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