SEOUL, South Korea — At a logistics depot the scale of an airplane hangar in southern Seoul, couriers just lately held a ritual initially of one other grueling work day: They stood for a second of silence to recollect greater than a dozen fellow couriers who they are saying died this yr from overwork.
“We gained’t be shocked right here if one among us drops useless, too,” stated Choi Ji-na, one of many couriers.
Ms. Choi, 43, and different supply staff in South Korea say they really feel fortunate to have jobs amid rising unemployment, and that they’re proud to play a vital position in conserving the nation’s Covid-19 circumstances down by delivering file numbers of packages to prospects preferring to remain protected at house.
However they’re additionally paying a worth.
The string of deaths amongst couriers this yr has brought about a nationwide uproar, drawing consideration to employee protections which are erratically distributed in a spot that when had one of many longest workweeks on the earth. Packages are anticipated to reach with “bullet velocity,” however the uninsured staff delivering them say it’s turning into not possible to maintain up with the demand, and that labor rule modifications made by President Moon Jae-in have left them out within the chilly.
There have been 15 deaths amongst couriers thus far, together with some who died after complaining of insufferable workloads that saved them on the clock from daybreak till previous midnight. The supply staff say they’re dying of “gwarosa,” or dying by overwork.
“The workload has change into simply an excessive amount of,” Ms. Choi stated. “For the reason that coronavirus got here, going house early sufficient to have dinner with my kids has change into a distant dream.”
Couriers are among the hardest-working, least protected staff in South Korea. Between 2015 and 2019, just one to 4 couriers died per yr. This yr, 9 couriers died within the first half of the yr alone, based on knowledge that the Korea Occupational Security and Well being Company submitted to the lawmaker Yong Hye-in.
When President Moon slashed the utmost workweek to 52 hours from 68 in 2018 to make sure a “work-life steadiness” and a “proper to relaxation,” couriers had been neglected of the deal. Because the pandemic rages on and packages pile up, couriers say they aren’t solely going through longer hours, however an ever-present worry that they are going to succumb to the mounting quantity of labor.
On-line orders have surged all over the world, and demand for delivered items in South Korea has grown by 30 p.c, to three.6 billion parcels this yr, based on some estimates.
Most deliveries in South Korea are dealt with by massive logistics firms. These companies outsource the labor to couriers, who’re impartial subcontractors engaged on fee utilizing their very own vans in assigned areas. Since 1997, as e-commerce as boomed and competitors has intensified, on-line delivery prices within the nation have dropped by greater than half.
Procuring malls and logistics companies now promise even quicker deliveries, providing “within-the-day,” “before-dawn” and “bullet-speed” choices. However the charges collected by couriers have dropped. Staff now obtain between 60 and 80 cents per parcel and have been slapped with penalties once they fail to satisfy supply deadlines set by main on-line purchasing retailers.
One courier in Seoul, Kim Dong-hee, returned house at 2 a.m. on Oct. 7. Later that day, he returned to the warehouse to choose up 420 packages. He nonetheless had many deliveries to make when he texted a colleague at 4:28 a.m. the subsequent day. He stated he can be house by 5 a.m. however would barely have time to eat and wash up earlier than heading out once more.
“I’m simply too drained,” he wrote.
4 days later, he didn’t present up for work. When colleagues checked his house, they discovered him useless; the police dominated that coronary heart failure was the trigger. Colleagues say he was killed by overwork. He was 36.
The day Mr. Kim despatched his message, one other man in Seoul, Kim Gained-jong, collapsed on his supply route, complaining of chest ache and issue respiration earlier than he died.
“I bear in mind how drained he seemed late within the night, his shoulders slumped and his cap pulled low, as if he had been semiconscious,” a buyer who knew Mr. Kim wrote on-line after his dying made information.
It has change into widespread to see weary couriers weaving by condo compounds at the hours of darkness, delivering fruit, bottled water, Christmas decorations and different gadgets many patrons now desire to have delivered. Some residents who worry an infection have refused to share elevators with supply staff, forcing them to haul packages up stairs.
The pandemic has introduced income to couriers and logistics firms like CJ Logistics, Hanjin Transport and Lotte. However categorized as self-employed, many of the nation’s estimated 54,000 “taekbae gisa,” or home-delivery drivers, don’t profit from the labor legal guidelines that defend full-time company staff. Advantages akin to time beyond regulation, paid trip and insurance coverage in opposition to on-the-job accidents are largely unavailable.
In keeping with a September survey by the Heart for Staff’ Well being and Security, a rights group, couriers work a median of 12 hours a day, six days every week. In keeping with authorities knowledge submitted to lawmakers, work-related accidents for couriers soared by 43 p.c within the first half of the yr.
Couriers in the USA, Europe and China have gone on strike looking for higher protections. In South Korea, they’ve staged strikes hoping to safe shorter hours and a “life with evenings.”
“We organized and fought again as a result of we had nobody to speak to,” stated Park Ki-ryeon, 36, a courier since 2016.
“We, too wish to maintain heat indoors, just like the individuals we serve,” Mr. Park stated. “However many people will not be effectively educated and began this work with money owed to pay. If we give up, we don’t have an alternate.”
Ms. Choi turned a supply employee seven years in the past after a divorce made her a single mom of two younger kids. She has hauled packages weighing as much as 55 kilos apiece up and down stairs. She typically has to climb partitions to make deliveries, as a result of householders are out, with their gates locked, however need the parcels left inside. Couriers have been identified to injure their ankles — or change into the topic of police calls made by neighbors who mistake them for burglars.
She stated she preferred the work as a result of she may get house in time for her kids to return from college, however the virus modified all the things. Ms. Choi now delivers as much as 370 parcels a day, 30 p.c greater than earlier than the pandemic. She begins work at 6:30 a.m. and infrequently will get house earlier than 10 p.m.
On the depot, container vans rumbled in beneath the pre-dawn sky, bringing cargo from throughout South Korea. As what appeared like an limitless stream of parcels of all sizes and styles had been unloaded, Ms. Choi and her colleagues gathered round a conveyor belt to seek for packages with addresses of their districts.
The deliveries would stretch effectively into the evening.
Some logistics firms have apologized for the latest spate of deaths and promised to supply advantages, like medical checkups, and add extra staff in phases to assist shorten work hours and handle the elevated quantity.
Mr. Moon’s authorities has vowed to introduce a five-day workweek and ban nighttime deliveries, admitting that his insurance policies haven’t saved up with the expansion of the supply business and that “the burden was concentrated in lengthy hours and heavy workloads for couriers.”
After the deaths generated headlines, individuals additionally started expressing sympathy for the couriers, leaving drinks and snacks on the door with notes saying, “It’s OK to be late.”
“When strangers cross me on the streets, they are saying to me, ‘Please don’t die! We’d like you,’” Mr. Park stated. However the reforms promised by logistics firms and the federal government have been too sluggish to reach.
When his grandmother died final month, Mr. Park stated, he needed to rent a alternative courier along with his personal cash to ship the parcels alongside his route simply so he may take a half time off to mourn her. “We wish change,” he stated. “We aren’t working machines.”
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