Supply Employees in South Korea Say They’re Dying of ‘Overwork’


SEOUL, South Korea – At a logistics depot the size of an airplane hangar in southern Seoul, couriers recently held a ritual at the start of another busy day: they stood for a moment in silence to remember more than a dozen fellow couriers who they were say died of overwork this year.

“We won’t be surprised if either of us drops dead here,” said Choi Ji-na, one of the couriers.

Ms. Choi, 43, and other delivery workers in South Korea say they are fortunate enough to have work as unemployment rises and that they are proud to play a vital role in helping the country’s Covid-19 cases get through Record delivery of parcels to keep customers who prefer to stay safe at home low.

But you also pay a price.

The number of courier deaths this year has sparked national turmoil, drawing attention to protecting workers unevenly distributed in what was once one of the world’s longest working weeks. Packages are expected to arrive at “speed,” but the uninsured workers who deliver them say it will be impossible to keep up with demand and that changes to the labor rules made by President Moon Jae-in will suit them left out in the cold.

So far, there have been 15 deaths among couriers, including some who died after complaining about excruciating workloads that kept them posted from morning until after midnight. The delivery workers say they are dying of “gwarosa” or death from overwork.

“The workload just got too big,” said Ms. Choi. “Since the coronavirus hit, it has become a distant dream to go home early enough to have dinner with my children.”

Couriers are among the hardest working and least sheltered workers in South Korea. Between 2015 and 2019, only one to four couriers died each year. This year, nine couriers died in the first half of the year alone. This is based on data submitted by the Korean Agency for Safety and Health at Work to the legislature Yong Hye-in.

When President Moon cut the maximum working week from 68 in 2018 to 52 hours in order to ensure a “work-life balance” and a “right to rest”, couriers were excluded from the agreement. As the pandemic rages on and parcels pile up, couriers say they face not only longer hours, but the pervasive fear that they will succumb to the growing volume of work.

Online orders have grown worldwide, and demand for shipped goods in South Korea is estimated to have increased 30 percent to 3.6 billion packages this year.

Most of the deliveries in South Korea are handled by large logistics companies. These firms outsource the workforce to couriers who are independent subcontractors who work on contract with their own trucks in the assigned areas. Since 1997, when e-commerce boomed and competition increased, online shipping costs in the country have fallen by more than half.

Shopping malls and logistics companies are now promising faster deliveries and offering “within the day”, “before sunrise” and “speed” options. But the fees charged by couriers have decreased. Workers are now paid between 60 and 80 cents per package and have been fined for failing to meet the delivery times set by major online shopping retailers.

A courier in Seoul, Kim Dong-hee, returned home at 2:00 am on October 7th. He returned to the camp later that day to pick up 420 packages. He still had a lot of deliveries to do when he texted a colleague at 4:28 a.m. the next day. He said he would be home by 5 a.m. but barely have time to eat and wash up before leaving.

“I’m just too tired,” he wrote.

He didn’t show up for work four days later. When colleagues checked his house, they found him dead; The police decided that heart failure was the cause. Colleagues say he was killed by overwork. He was 36 years old.

On the day that Mr. Kim sent his message, another man in Seoul, Kim Won-jong, collapsed on his way to delivery and complained of chest pain and difficulty breathing before he died.

“I remember how tired he looked late at night, his shoulders slumped and his hat pulled low as if he were half unconscious,” wrote a customer who knew that Mr. Kim was writing online after his death.

It has become common for tired couriers to weave through apartment complexes in the middle of the night, delivering fruit, bottled water, Christmas decorations, and other items that many shoppers today would rather have delivered. Some residents, fearful of infection, have refused to share elevators with deliverers, forcing them to haul packages up the stairs.

The pandemic has brought profits to couriers and logistics companies like CJ Logistics, Hanjin Shipping and Lotte. However, most of the estimated 54,000 Taekbae Gisa or home delivery drivers do not benefit from the labor laws that protect full-time company employees. Benefits such as overtime, paid vacation, and workplace injury insurance are largely unavailable.


Dec. 16, 2020, 2:19 p.m. ET

According to a September survey by the Center for Workers’ Health and Safety, a rights group, couriers work an average of 12 hours a day, six days a week. According to government data submitted to lawmakers, work-related injuries suffered by couriers rose 43 percent in the first half of the year.

Couriers in the US, Europe and China are on strike to achieve better protection. In South Korea they carried out strikes in the hope of ensuring shorter working hours and a “life with evenings”.

“We organized and resisted because we had no one to talk to,” said Park Ki-ryeon, 36, who has been a courier since 2016.

“We too want to keep ourselves warm inside, like the people we serve,” said Park. “But many of us are not well educated and have started this work with debt to be paid. If we stop, we have no alternative. “

Ms. Choi became a delivery worker seven years ago after becoming a single mother of two young children after a divorce. She has been pulling packages weighing up to 55 pounds each up and down stairs. She sometimes has to climb walls to make deliveries because homeowners are outside with their gates locked but want to keep the packages inside. Couriers have been known to injure their ankles – or become the subject of police shouts from neighbors who believe they are burglars.

She said she liked the work because she could get home in time for her kids to return from school, but the virus changed everything. Ms. Choi now delivers up to 370 parcels a day, 30 percent more than before the pandemic. She starts work at 6:30 a.m. and rarely comes home before 10:00 p.m.

At the depot, container trucks rumbled in under the sky before dawn, bringing cargo from all over South Korea. As an endless stream of packages of all shapes and sizes was unloaded, Ms. Choi and her colleagues gathered around a conveyor belt to search for packages with addresses in their districts.

The deliveries would last well into the night.

Some logistics companies have apologized for the recent death toll and promised to provide services like medical examinations and gradually hire more staff to reduce working hours and cope with the increased volume.

Mr. Moon’s government has vowed to introduce a five-day work week and ban nightly deliveries, admitting that its policies have not kept pace with the growth of the delivery industry and that “the burden has been concentrated on long hours and heavy workloads for couriers” .

After the deaths hit the headlines, people also expressed their condolences to the couriers, leaving drinks and snacks on the door with the notes, “It’s okay to be late.”

“When strangers pass me on the street, they say to me: ‘Please don’t die! We need you, ”said Mr. Park. However, the reforms promised by logistics companies and the government have been too slow.

When his grandmother died last month, Mr. Park said, he had to hire a replacement courier with his own money to deliver the packages along his route just so he could take half a day off to mourn them. “We want change,” he said. “We don’t work on machines.”