Delivery drivers like Kim Do-gyun face some of the most exploitative work conditions in today's South Korea. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

SEOUL – If you think you are having a non-merry Christmas this year because of Covid-19, spare a thought for South Korea’s delivery workers.

These millennial Santas don’t deliver parcels via chimneys, but the Dickensian conditions of their jobs amid the increased demand of the pandemic have led to a spate of fatalities that are attributed to gwarosa – literally, “death by overwork.”

The latest – which generated demonstrations and won national media attention – came this week, after a driver was found dead at his home, apparently from heart failure. According to his union, the 34-year-old driver, “Mr Park,” had lost 20 kilos since July.

“It is an irony that people have to die from making a living,” Kim Do-gyun, a contract delivery driver like Park, told Asia Times. The deaths – 16 this year, according to Kim’s union – prove “that there are serious systematic problems.”

The drivers are suffering from a convergence of factors. In a country with a tradition of long, hard work, governed by what locals call a palli palli (“hurry, hurry”) culture, an already highly digitized, shop-online economy has surged, driven by the stay-at-home pandemic trend.

Drivers say 2020’s work has increased and conditions have worsened. In short, workers who might reasonably have expected to benefit from Covid-19 are being hammered by it.

Long days, long roads

“This year has been really tough,” said Kim. “There is no other sector where more than 10 workers died from overwork.”

Kim knows. He has been working as a contracted delivery driver for six years.

In the bright, shiny and relentlessly middle-class South Korea of BTS and Samsung, the 48-year-old is a member of an overlooked class: Blue-collar service workers.

Kim’s work conditions are relentless. He rises at 5:30am and leaves home at 6:20am in order to be at the depot by 7:00am.

The depot, down a dusty road beside a gritty little township northeast of Seoul, is owned and operated by a global logistics company that is part of a chaebol – one of the giant, family-run conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy.

The depot is essentially a series of concrete-floored loading docks, each with a conveyor running down the middle. Backed up to the docks on each side of the belt are scores of delivery vans, including Kim’s.  

In this chilly, un-walled space, drivers pull packages off conveyor belts, pile them onto trolleys and load up vans. The vehicles are stacked to their roofs with everything from toilet roll to computers. Some even have packages piled in their cabs.

The rear of a delivery truck, outside the depot on Christmas Eve. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Men smoke while they work, many sip steaming coffees. No lattes or mochas here, but the kind of instant brews from paper cups that South Korea’s hip urbanites stopped quaffing a decade ago.  

Sorting the parcels is time-consuming. The drivers have to arrange packages in their vans according to their routes. On Christmas Eve, Kim had 352 packages to deliver.

Only at 1:50pm does Kim finish sorting. His van joins the convoys that are leaving the depot and heading out onto the highway net to Seoul. Now, after nearly seven hours, his real work – ie, the work for which he is paid – starts.

Kim, like most contract drivers, cannot stop to eat. He dines on the job. As a result, the cab of his van is awash with detritus – wrappers of candies, chips, seaweed rolls and other snacks, as well as empty plastic bottles of coffee.

Kim’s route runs through northeastern Seoul. His first stop is at 2:20pm – a box of tangerines to a small, single home set in a clearing in trees beside a highway. Then it is on to a low-rise apartment cluster.

Here, an occupational hazard in apparent. The slightly built Kim has to heft the packages – in this case, household goods – up four flights of stairs.

The next stop is a driving-test center, where Kim’s delivery is a trolley-load of stationary. Then, another apartment complex.

“It’s hard for them,” sighs an old man in the apartment’s maintenance office as he watches Kim at work. “Really hard.”

And so it goes. Kim expects to finish his shift at “9:00pm or 10:00pm.”

This is the six-days a week, no-vacation, public-holidays only, working life of the contracted delivery driver in South Korea.

Delivery driver Kim Do-gyun works 14-15 hour days. He takes no breaks – he eats on the job. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Empowered vs disempowered

According to Kang Min-wook, head of training and publicity at the Associated Delivery Drivers Union, the country’s pool of delivery drivers is 50,000 strong. But only about 2,000 of them are full-time employees of large logistics companies, such as CJ, Hanjin and Lotte, with salaries and benefits.

The rest are contracted drivers like Kim, who work for the agencies that supply drivers to the major companies.

The volume and intensity of their work has risen 30% in the pandemic, Kang said. Despite all the sorting they are required to do before they hit the roads – Kim bitterly calls it “free labor” – contract drivers are paid by the number of parcels delivered.

“As the industry gets bigger the commission fee gets smaller, so the drivers have to deliver more parcels,” Kang said. “In the Covid era, it has averaged 313 parcels per day.”

Union data finds that the average monthly wage of a contracted driver is 4,587,000 won ($4,166). However, the amount they take home is about half that, due to costs that dig deep into the drivers’ pockets.

According to Kang, drivers have to pay 10-20% of their income to their agencies. They buy their own vehicles – Kim’s van cost 20 million won – which are usually paid via monthly installments.

Mandatory industrial accident insurance is a whopping 450,000 won per month. That may be merited by the risks of the job.

Kim says more drivers die in road accidents from overwork, though such deaths do not make the news. Two colleagues from his depot recently fell asleep at the wheel and had non-fatal accidents, he said.

Yet if drivers are injured or sick, they have to find substitute drivers to cover their route, and pay them to do the job.

If any parcels are damaged, drivers have to pay 50% of the cost. They also have to pay for the essential delivery app on their smartphones.

All this takes a deep gouge.

“Take home pay is 2.3-2.4 million won,” Kang said. And while the maximum number of working hours by law in Korea is 52, drivers work 71.3, Kang said, meaning they make less than the minimum wage.

Kim unloads packages. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

The way ahead

The highly-publicized overwork deaths this year have led to some changes. In the past, drivers could be scolded if they were late, but now a public campaign called “It’s OK to be late” has started on social media.

“There is a feeling that public awareness has changed,” said Kang. “Now, delivery workers are warmly welcomed and people realize how hard they are working and understand if they are late.” 

Some customers leave food and drinks for the taekbae ajoshi (“delivery guy”). And this year, August 14 was “No Parcel Day” – the first such day in 20 years, according to Kang. But while contract drivers did not work on that day, they also received no pay.

The government is also waking up to the death-by-overwork issue. In October, President Moon Jae-in, citing the death of a delivery worker, told a cabinet meeting: “Covid-19 is increasingly pushing the livelihoods of workers within economic blind spots, including those of [contract] workers, towards the brink.”

A tripartite organization comprising drivers, agencies and logistics companies was established under government auspices on December 7. Kang anticipates the first outcome around the Chinese New Year in 2021.  

He and Kim hope the government will require major companies to negotiate directly with the drivers so they can get basic rights – such as paid sick leave – and upgrade the sorting issue.

The union has also carried out a survey which found that the majority of the public would be willing to pay slightly higher commission fees per parcel if that would help drivers.

‘The end of the road’

Contract drivers have slipped through the cracks of millennial South Korea. Ever since labor laws were changed to permit greater market flexibility in South Korea in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis, there has been a sharp divergence in the conditions of the working class.

While unionized workers at major companies – such as Hyundai Motor, (“The aristocrats of labor”) – enjoy a comfortable life, the pool of contract workers has massively increased.

Many South Koreans escape the labor market by opening the Mom ‘n Pops businesses that are ubiquitous country-wide: shops, restaurants, cafes, cram schools and the like. It is due to the damage this tier of the economy would suffer that Seoul is so reluctant to impose the strictest level of social distancing.  

Meanwhile, those who fail to find salaried positions at major companies and don’t possess capital, degrees or specialized skills find themselves trapped in contract work.

“Even if the intensity of the labor is high and we are pressed for time every second, this [contract driving] work has better revenue than other types of work,” said Kim, formerly a construction worker.

Kim is one of the 10% of contract drivers who are unionized.

“I don’t have any hopes at all, this is why I am part of the union,” he said. “If we don’t fight, nothing will improve.”

And Kim is a fighter. Unlike many colleagues, Kim resisted painting his van in the livery of the chaebol for whom he delivers. The company required the drivers to pay for the work themselves. Kim refused.

Still, while he complains that logistics companies should invest in upgrading the sorting process to ease the drivers’ workload, he believes the authorities must step in.

“There are a lot of things that need to be solved,” he said. “The government has to come up and change the whole system.”

Whether that happens or not, Kim, and those like him, have few other options.

“Most delivery workers are people who used to work in other sectors,” Kim said. “We are people who have nothing else to do – this is the end of the road.”

Seo Ji-eun assisted with this article

Heading into Seoul. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon