At a logistics depot in southern Seoul, couriers recently held a ritual at the start of another grueling work day: They stood for a moment of silence to remember 15 fellow couriers who they say died this year from overwork.
“We won’t be surprised here if one of us drops dead, too,” said Choi Ji-na, one of the couriers.
Ms. Choi, 43, and other delivery workers in South Korea say they feel lucky to have jobs amid growing unemployment, and that they are proud to play an essential role in keeping the country’s Covid-19 cases down by delivering record numbers of packages to customers who prefer to stay safe at home.
But they are also paying a price.
The string of deaths among couriers this year has caused a national uproar, drawing attention to worker protections that are unevenly distributed in a place that once had one of the longest workweeks in the world. Packages are expected to arrive with “bullet speed,” but the uninsured workers delivering them say that it is becoming impossible to keep up with the demand and that labor rule changes made by President Moon Jae-in have neglected them.
Couriers are some of the hardest-working, least protected workers in South Korea. From 2015 to 2019, only one to four couriers died per year. This year, nine couriers died in the first half of the year alone.
When Mr. Moon cut the maximum workweek to 52 hours from 68 in 2018 to ensure a “work-life balance” and a “right to rest,” couriers were left out of the deal.
Online orders have surged around the world, and demand for delivered goods in South Korea has grown by 30 percent, to 3.6 billion parcels this year, according to some estimates.
Most deliveries in South Korea are handled by large logistics companies. Those firms outsource the labor to couriers, who are independent subcontractors working on commission using their own trucks in assigned areas.
Shopping malls and logistics firms now promise even faster deliveries, offering “within the day,” “before dawn” and “bullet speed” options. But the fees collected by couriers have dropped. Workers now receive between 60 and 80 cents per parcel and have been hit with penalties when they fail to meet delivery deadlines.
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