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[Lee Kyong-hee] Overlooked front-line heroes amid the pandemic

Deaths of overworked delivery service workers -- 13 this year alone -- have exposed the reality of South Korea’s gig economy in this Year of the Pandemic.

The delivery services that we enjoy, whether for food or any other product, are so amazingly convenient and fast that “flash delivery” and “bullet delivery” labels are common.

The convenience surely takes a physical and emotional toll, but it is a cost that few of us stop to think about as we bring in our deliveries. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the global community marveled at the absence of panicked shoppers and hoarding in Korea. The calmness uniquely contrasted with the chaos in many other nations.

We didn’t have long queues of anxiety or store shelves stripped bare before lockdowns went into effect. The explanation was our efficient delivery service systems. We could order and pay for our groceries and nonfood items online, and well within 24 hours the purchases would be placed at our doorsteps without any person-to-person contact required.

Of course, speedy and efficient home deliveries were already a hallmark of Korean consumer culture before the pandemic. City dwellers, in particular, have become addicted to home delivery of groceries and meals, and businesses have raised the service level higher recently with predawn deliveries of food orders.

Ordering your food at 11 p.m. and getting it brought to your doorstep before dawn means that some people work overnight for your breakfast. If those workers can sleep during the day to work the midnight shift, and if they ever can make extra cash for the atypical work routine, even braving the risk of infection, you may have fewer reasons to feel uncomfortable. The job may be essential for their survival, after all. They might not be able to feed their families otherwise.

But the working conditions of most delivery service providers, as we find out, are far from ideal. After three delivery drivers died within a month, a reporter from the Hankyoreh newspaper worked a shift at CJ Logistics, one of the largest delivery companies, for which one of the drivers had worked. The reporter accompanied a driver named Kim Do-gyun, 48, all day on Oct. 13.

He wrote: “Mr. Kim left home at 5:55 a.m. and arrived at his workplace, the Nowon Terminal, at 6:35 a.m. He immediately began sorting boxes pouring down on a conveyer belt and gathered the boxes headed to his area. Then he loaded the boxes on his truck, which he completed at 1:47 p.m. No meal or restroom breaks so far. He visited a nearby Chinese restaurant at 1:53 p.m. and emptied a plate of black noodles, his first meal of the day, in eight minutes.

“His area has few tall apartment buildings, instead mostly small multifamily units and studios, which means there are few elevators. He climbed up all of the stairs carrying a stack of packages.”

Kim finished his work by 12:45 a.m., having delivered all 430 parcels assigned to him. “He worked nearly 18 hours,” the report continued, “walking 27,000 steps over some 20-30 kilometers on that day.”

Kim is paid 700 won (62 cents) per delivery. Out of this amount, he pays all of his expenses, including tax, a 10 percent commission to his agent, truck insurance and fuel. This means he earns 580-600 won per delivery. He isn’t eligible for hazard pay, industrial accident insurance, sick leave or any protections in case of work-related accidents or conflicts with his agent or clients.

This is because Kim is not a “worker” as defined by the Labor Standards Act. He is an “independent contractor” earning commissions. He is under contract with an agent who works for CJ Logistics, and is not an employee of the delivery company. Kim’s fragile, unprotected status is why he not only carries orders to doorsteps but also ends up helping sort, load and unload huge warehouse trucks, working inhumanely long hours.

Parcel loading and unloading is crucial. The job needs to be done swiftly and correctly because items purchased online go through several hands before reaching buyers -- from the place of production to a delivery company’s warehouse to the company’s central logistics center and then to its regional terminals and finally to the delivery driver’s trucks. The process is usually finished within a day.

A high workforce turnover is characteristic of truck loading and unloading. The job, called “kkadaegi,” is mostly done by gig workers and part-timers, and few stay long due to its grueling nature. This is why many drivers like Kim have no choice but to load their trucks.

“An 11-ton truck carries an average of 700-800 packages, occasionally holding more than 1,000 packages,” recalls Lee Jong-chul, a former part-time truck unloader. “We worked as a team of two, from 7 a.m. until past lunchtime, handling on average four to five trucks a day. It took about 40-50 minutes to unload each truck. After just one truck, my legs would feel wobbly.”

Lee worked morning shifts for five delivery companies over six years. In the afternoon he drew comics and made his debut with an autobiographical comic book titled “Kkadaegi” (Bori Publishing, 2019).

Over the six years, Lee met people from all walks of life coming and going. “They all struggled desperately to make ends meet from day to day, each with their own story,” Lee says. “I grew closer to my colleagues as time went by, especially the drivers who had nothing but their own body and truck, but worked so honestly. I wanted to put their stories into comics.”

In one of the episodes, a driver laments being “an independent operator, but without autonomy; a worker, but without rights.”

The final scene zooms in on the protagonist and his colleagues, declaring proudly that they intend to “break down the wall.” The wall may refer to the wall of delivery boxes towering behind them. But it also could mean the invisible barriers of segregation in our society. They seem to be asking us to ponder what we collectively owe the essential front-line workers holding our society together at this critical hour.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts, published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.