Fourteen delivery drivers in South Korea dead from overwork this year

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An alliance for the rights of delivery workers stage a memorial march on Saturday in Seoul for delivery workers who died from overwork and fatigue

Fourteen delivery workers in South Korea have died of overwork this year because they had to handle a sharply higher volume of packages due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the latest fatality last week week, a union official said.

A worker for CJ Logistics Corp collapsed while taking a short break late last Tuesday night and later died in hospital, according to an official at the union representing delivery workers.

The dead also included one worker who committed suicide after leaving a note about the harsh conditions he had toiled in, the official said.

One of the deaths was attributed to heart failure while the causes of death for the rest were only described as ‘kwarosa’ by the families, a Korean term used for sudden death due to heart failure or a stroke as a result of extreme hard work.

CJ last Thursday issued a public apology over the deaths of five of its workers, vowing to improve conditions for its couriers.

The country’s top logistics firm with 20,000 delivery workers said it was discussing compensation with the families.

‘As the company’s chief executive, I feel responsible for a series of deaths of couriers and deeply apologise for causing concerns to the people,’ CJ Logistics chief executive Park Keun-hee told a news conference.

The deaths triggered new public scrutiny on the complicated employment structure and whether the companies failed to ensure reasonable working conditions for the workers.

Earlier last week, President Moon Jae-in called for an overhaul of working conditions for delivery employees, saying they have suffered some of the worst hardships under the pandemic.

Smaller delivery company Hanjin Transportation also made a public apology last week over the death of a courier and pledged to reduce the workload for its workers.

CJ said it would add more workers and ensure all couriers are signed up for industrial accident insurance.

But most contracts signed by the workers are with independent agents who act as middlemen, rather than with the company itself, leaving them outside the protection of labour law.

Yoon Sung-goo, an agent for CJ, said he had agreed to CJ’s proposals to reduce workload of delivery workers and would discuss details.

CJ Logistics is an affiliate of the country’s food-to-retail conglomerate CJ Group.

An advocacy group said last Thursday that Kang Doo-han, 39, who was contracted with CJ Logistics, collapsed at a hub terminal near Seoul at 11.50pm last Tuesday.

He was sent to hospital but died at 1.00am on Wednesday, it said.

Kang was the 14th worker in the industry who has died this year, at a time when the pandemic has led to a surge in online orders and shipment volumes.

Activists held a press conference on Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square on October 21, 2020, to demand the creation of a new deliberative body to address couriers’ deaths.

According to his family and activists, the deceased suffered extremely long hours of work just before his death.

He worked from 2.00pm on Sunday to noon on Monday.

He went back to work at 5.00pm on Monday and continued to work before collapsing the following night, they said.

‘The deceased usually worked at night. He was pressed hard for time and continued to work for several days without taking proper rest,’ said the group working for the rights of delivery workers.

The man had heart problems but the overwork is presumed to be the direct cause of his death, it added.

Including Kang, six workers contracted with the company have died this year.

CJ Logistics chief executive Park Keun-hee told the news conference: ‘We apologise for the successive deaths of couriers.

‘All members of management of CJ Logistics are taking this situation seriously and working hard to prevent a recurrence.’

The company announced measures to prevent overworking, including a plan to increase the number of workers assigned to sorting packages to 4,000 from the current 1,000 in stages starting next month.

Delivery workers complained they spend half of their hours on sorting and that they do not receive proper compensation for the work.

CJ also promised to have all parcel workers benefit from industrial accident insurance within the first half of next year.

About 80 per cent of the nation’s delivery workers are exempted from the insurance. A government probe found that a recently deceased CJ worker’s application to be exempted from insurance coverage was written by someone else.

The government is inspecting major delivery companies to look into whether there are similar manipulations, possibly by branch operators, to avoid paying insurance premiums.

The South Korean Employment Permit System ties foreign labourers to their employers by contract and visa, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, say workers and activists.

The Employment Permit System is supposed to be a win-win solution for South Korean employers struggling to find workers and Asian workers seeking higher-paying jobs overseas.

The 16-year-old system, however, has been criticised for leaving workers vulnerable to abusive practices and even ‘slave-like’ exploitation by employers.

At the centre of the dispute is a clause in the legislation that effectively bans workers from changing workplaces.

A migrant fisherman from Timor-Leste, who wanted to be identified only as Lopes M, spoke about his experience of working long hours without being paid properly at a press conference in central Seoul last week.

‘During anchovy season, I even went to sea twice a day, had to dry anchovies and take care of fishing nets as well, working for about 15 to 20 hours a day.

‘That didn’t mean I made more money,’ Lopes M said in fluent Korean at the press conference.

He was virtually locked up and isolated on Gaeyado, off the coast of Gunsan, as he was not allowed to leave without permission from his employer.

He was dispatched to other workplaces several times, in breach of his employment contract.

He earned about 2 million won ($1,765) per month, which he found out only recently because his employer had kept his bankbook.

‘While fishing on the boat, no meal was provided, but only bread and Choco Pies,’ he said, referring to a brand of chocolate snack.

Lopes M first came to Korea in July 2014 and worked for his boss on Gaeyado for four years and 10 months. He got a second work permit in 2019, valid for another four years and 10 months, on the condition that he stay with the same employer.

He escaped from the island in September this year and has been staying at a shelter ever since.

‘If I could, I would like to change my workplace and go to Jeju Island, where my friend is,’ he said.

The predicament Lopes M. faces is not an isolated one.

In July, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea conducted an inspection into the working conditions of 63 migrant fishing crew members on islands off the west coast and found they clocked 12 hours a day on average with less than an hour for breaks.

Some 90 per cent of the workers said they’d had no official days off for a year.

Their average monthly income was about 1.87 million won. Based on the minimum wage, they should be paid an average of 3.09 million won, plus significant amounts for overtime. There were six cases where migrant workers had their passports confiscated and 23 where their bankbooks were taken away.

A Vietnamese national who began working in Korea in June 2019 developed nasal symptoms after prolonged exposure to welding fumes and gases. When he told his employer about it in January, his boss promised to let him change his workplace if he stayed for another six months.

He asked again after six months, only to be refused, blackmailed, assaulted and even accused of carrying the coronavirus.

‘After I completed working for a full year on June 19, I asked the boss again whether I could find another employer. The boss rejected it,’ said the man, who wanted to be identified only as An. He said his employer forced him to sign a paper agreeing to work there for another three years.

‘On July 13, my employer took my temperature and took me to a health clinic for a coronavirus test, even though I had no symptoms,’ An said, adding that he was isolated for two weeks in July in a small room without a bed or bathroom.

After his boss assaulted him in early September, he reported it to the police and filed a petition with a local employment centre requesting permission to change his workplace. He is currently awaiting the centre’s decision.