Since the start of the pandemic, 21 delivery workers in South Korea have died. Unions blame overwork. The Koreans even have a word for death by overwork: ‘gwarosa’.
We all rely on home deliveries to get us through the pandemic but do we ever spare a thought for the workers who bring them to us?
As demand for home deliveries explodes, the pressure on warehouse sorters and drivers has become relentless.
Lee Seong Wook, 44, is a delivery driver. He works six days a week from early in the morning until late at night.
“I’d be lying if I said it isn’t tough for me. But it’s a matter of survival. My children won’t eat if I don’t earn.”
Lee’s colleague, 47-year-old driver Im Gwang Soo, recently suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and fell into a coma. His life is hanging in the balance. Before his collapse, Im Gwang Soo had been working over 90 hours a week.
As companies compete with each other to offer faster delivery times, distribution workers and drivers have borne the brunt, putting in longer and longer hours.
The ABC’s South Korea correspondent Carrington Clarke goes on the road with the drivers and hears stories of their struggles as they race against the clock to deliver more packages than ever before.
He rides with 61-year-old driver Huh Wonjea, the son of an activist and fighter in the Korean Independence Movement. Mr Huh says South Koreans worked hard to rebuild their country after the war, but not everyone is reaping the rewards.
“The whole country’s been developing, but still in terms of the fair distribution of the assets or human rights… not really fairly developed yet.”
Lee Seong Wook is a branch leader of the Delivery Workers’ Union. He’s determined that his generation will be the one to force change.
“If our generation can’t change it, it’ll be passed down to the next generation and then what we sacrifice for our children would be meaningless. “
It’s not just the drivers who are suffering. Those working in the distribution centres are also being pushed to their limits and beyond.
27-year-old Jang Deokjoon died of a heart attack. He’d been working long hours in the “fulfillment centre” of e-commerce company Coupang, described as the “Amazon” of South Korea. The government ruled it was “death by overwork”.
“These really clever people used their brains only to work out how to squeeze as much blood from the workers as possible within the boundaries of the law”, says Deokjoon’s mother.
In response to union pressure, some companies have introduced restrictions on delivering parcels after 9pm. But many drivers still have parcels left. If they don’t deliver them, their workload the following day will be even greater, so they keep working. For any food items they deliver after the 9pm cutoff, they’ll pay late fees. They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
Dead on Arrival is a timely and cautionary tale of what happens when workers are pushed to the limit in the name of consumer convenience and company profits.
“If consumers don’t start thinking about it there will be other victims. Do you really think it’s okay to turn a blind eye or force someone to be sacrificed for your convenience?”, asks Deokjoon’s mother.
About Foreign Correspondent:
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