Tuesday, November 03, 2020


 "Kwarosa" is the Korean term used for sudden death due to heart failure or a stroke as a result of extreme hard work.

14 workers in South Korea who union officials say died because of overwork - most of them delivery drivers.

 As the packages have piled up during the pandemic, so has the pressure. Around the developed world, delivery drivers are bearing the burden and the cost of the pandemic-induced new normal. The coronavirus has accelerated our love of internet shopping. In South Korea, home deliveries are expected in hours not days.

An hour before sunrise, 21 hours into a shift, and Mr Kim had delivered more than 400 packages. The 36-year-old delivery driver had been working since 5am the previous day. He messaged a colleague, pleading to skip a round of parcel deliveries.

"It's too much," he wrote. "I just can't."

Four days later, Mr Kim was dead. 

27-year-old Jang Deok-jin, a former Taekwondo enthusiast who had lost 15kg (33lbs) after doing 18 months of night shifts. Deok-jin came home from a night shift earlier this month at around six in the morning and headed for a shower. His father found him dead face down in the bathtub an hour later.

In August, South Korea's labour ministry stepped in and urged the country's major logistics companies to sign a declaration to ensure drivers got enough rest and did not have to work continuous overnight shifts. Three of the biggest firms, CJ Logistics, Coupang and Hanjin Transportation, all made public apologies over the deaths of workers.

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. Union leaders also said they had yet to see the promised increase in manpower at most depots.

At a warehouse depot the size of an aircraft hanger on the outskirts of Seoul several hundred workers for Lotte Global Logistics were on strike demanding better pay and conditions. Their rally cry was, "We want to live".

Kim Duk-yeon, 48, hadn't told his family he was on the picket line, as they knew he could not afford to go a day without pay.

"Before I used to think this work was just hard, but this year especially with the increased shipping due to the coronavirus, the situation on the ground got a lot worse," he said. "As I worked more and more I thought maybe I too would die."

The drivers have to sort their own packages before they can even get behind the wheel. Duk-yeon gets to the depot around 6.30am and can be sorting and packing for four to five hours before he gets on the road. Filling the trucks is like a giant jigsaw puzzle - fitting smaller and larger boxes into the space. No package can be left behind.

Drivers are paid around 800 Korean won per parcel ($0.70, £0.50), and these days they deliver around 350 packages a day. Most also have to pay for the wages of workers who bring packages down to the floor of the warehouse, and they have to pay penalties if deliveries are late or lost.

Lotte Global Logistics settled its dispute with the unions. The company also pledged to deploy a thousand more workers to sorting stations and abolish the penalty payments.

There are some small signs the deaths of delivery worker deaths is having an impact on South Korean shoppers. In the windows of some apartments you can see notes which read, "Dear deliveryman, it's okay to be late". In some apartment blocks, people have started to meet delivery men with hot coffee and some breakfast. These small signs of appreciation for the delivery drivers may not substantially change the demands placed on them but the gestures are welcomed by drivers as they prepare for the long shift ahead.


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