Feature: S.Korea's Coupang under criticism for deaths of overworked couriers, warehouse workers

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, April 23, 2021
Adjust font size:

By Yoo Seungki

SEOUL, April 23 (Xinhua) -- South Korea's e-commerce behemoth Coupang has been under harsh criticism here for the deaths of several couriers and warehouse workers, which some of the bereaved families and civic activists blamed on overwork and poor working conditions.

"Seven Coupang employees and two subcontractors have died of cardiovascular disorders, such as heart attack, for the past year," Kwon Young-gook, a lawyer and the co-chair at the Committee for Coupang Workers' Human Rights and Health, told a recent press conference with foreign correspondents in Seoul.

Kwon said overwork, especially overnight work, and poor labor conditions, specifically at logistics centers, were the main cause of death, adding that Coupang was most aggressively beefing up labor intensity and overnight work for faster delivery as competition intensified.

Coupang, launched in 2010, started "rocket delivery" service in 2014 to get pre-midnight orders delivered the next day. It has since grown into the country's biggest e-commerce retailer, expanding options to "daybreak" and "same-day" deliveries as do its competitors.

"Pre-dawn groceries delivery services like (Coupang's) Rocket Fresh inevitably entail overnight delivery and overnight labor (at logistics centers)," said Kwon. "Out of the nine deaths, five are connected to overnight work as they passed away during or after night duty," he noted.

Jang Deok-joon, 27, was one of the alleged victims of overnight work who died of a heart attack after returning home from an overnight shift at a Coupang logistics center in the southeastern city of Daegu last October.

On the day when Jang passed away, he got back home at about 6:00 a.m. as usual, Park Mi-sook, the mother of Jang, recalled. Her son went into the bathroom for a shower but did not come out after a long time. When her husband forcibly pushed the door open, her son was found dead in the bathtub with his body huddled.

The devastated parents initially failed to sense what happened to their son, but they reported it to the police and asked for an autopsy as one of Jang's colleagues told them in a funeral home that Jang had complained of nausea and chest pressure before getting off work.

Park said Coupang initially denied its responsibility, and she began fighting against the e-commerce giant that went public in New York last month. The death of Jang, who had worked at the Coupang warehouse for 16 months from 7:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., was officially acknowledged as a work-related incident in February, and Coupang apologized.

Asked by Xinhua about the nine deaths, Coupang said it has had "zero accident deaths" and "only one work-related death" in the last 10 years. It was far lower than the corresponding figures for the entire logistics industry, according to the company.

"Of the nine, two were not Coupang workers and those deaths were not accident-related. Out of the remaining seven Coupang worker deaths, three died from incidents at home or on vacation, and only four incidents occurred on site," Coupang said.

"All four on-site incidents were heart attack-related... Cardiac and cerebrovascular disorders are the second and 4th leading causes of death in (South) Korea," the company said.

According to the lawyer Kwon, it is very hard for employees here to get their injuries and illnesses ruled to be work-related as the workers, not the employers, are required by local law to verify the causal relationship between work and industrial accidents "through and through".

Park, the deceased Jang's mother, said she had asked everywhere around for the testimonies from his late son's co-workers, but she secured only one testimony as the others were terrified of being sued by or suffering disadvantage from the employer.

"Coupang denies responsibility and says 'do whatever you want,'" said Choi Dong-beom, the husband of the late Park Hyun-kyung who died of a heart attack last June after working as a subcontractor at a cafeteria of the Coupang warehouse in Cheonan, about 90 km south of the capital Seoul.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Park was swamped with work amid a growing number of online orders, Choi said. Sometimes, his late wife returned home with her clothes stained with blood during her menstrual period because she didn't even have time to go to the toilet, he said tearfully.

Coupang said it added around 12,500 employees to its warehouses, called fulfillment centers, last year alone, making an investment worth 500 billion won (447 million U.S. dollars) as part of its "continued efforts to ease the workload."

The pandemic sped up the expansion of the South Korean e-commerce market, of which transactions were estimated at about 161 trillion won (144 billion U.S. dollars) in 2020. It was up 19 percent from the previous year.

It is common here to see motorbike or truck couriers weaving through the streets as people preferred to stay at home amid the prolonged pandemic in South Korea which is densely populated and has one of the world's highest penetration rates of smartphones and high-speed internet.

Yoon Jae-yong is one of the independent motorbike couriers who work on commission for Coupang Eats, the meal-delivery service of Coupang. Just three days after sorting stuff at a warehouse of a separate logistics firm, the 44-year-old quitted the job due to what he said was the "suffocating" atmosphere of the workplace.

"It was suffocating to work (at the warehouse) because I was not able to go to the toilet. Nobody went to the toilet, so I contained my urine. Of course, I was not able to smoke during work hours. People were exploited like a factory machine (at the warehouse)," Yoon said in a recent interview with Xinhua.

Yoon initially liked his job as an independent courier because he did not need to walk on eggshells to be conscious of managers at the warehouse and he was able to take a rest whenever he wanted a day off.

Yoon had a car accident in January when a sedan violated a traffic signal and slammed into his motorcycle. He was hospitalized for two months, but he, fortunately, suffered a relatively minor injury such as a fractured finger and bruises.

The approved number of work-related car accidents among online platform-based couriers surged to 917, including 11 deaths, in 2020 from 512 in the previous year, according to data submitted by the Korea Workers' Compensation and Welfare Service to the ruling Democratic Party lawmaker Kim Ju-young.

Coupang said it offers the paid time off, guaranteed bathroom breaks, one-hour breaks for every eight hours worked and full benefits to its directly-hired delivery workers, dubbed "Coupang Friends", but Yoon is one of the exceptions as he works on commission as an independent contract courier using his own motorbike.

"On a rainy day, I'm sitting outdoors on my bike all day waiting for the next order. On a freezing cold day, there is no place to rest indoors, so I wait outdoors because I can be paid extra money for delivery on bad weather," Yoon said.

"Riding a bike in bad weather is very dangerous. But, people like us go outside to make some quick money," he added. Enditem

Follow China.org.cn on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.
ChinaNews App Download
Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Enter the words you see:   
    Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from China.org.cnMobileRSSNewsletter