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South Korea’s delivery workers have fallen into what they call a “legal blind spot” and say it’s a deadly place to be as the novel coronavirus drives an unprecedented boom in online business.

Labour rights have made huge progress in South Korea over the past couple of decades but the couriers say they have seen little benefit.

“Work-life balance? That’s another world,” said Jeong Sang-rok, 51, a contract worker who delivers parcels for Hanjin Transportation, one of South Korea’s two big delivery companies.

Parcel shipments have increased 12% each year in South Korea since 2004 as online shipping grew, then surged 23% from February to October this year, compared with the same period last year, as the pandemic hit, according to government data.

The big delivery firms are enjoying strong profits. CJ Logistics reported a 21% rise in first-half operating profit and Hanjin Transportation posted a 35% increase. Those companies represent about a 64% of the delivery market.

Most of South Korea’s 54,000 delivery workers are hired under subcontracts that deny them the safeguards and benefits regular employees get.

Workers and union officials say legal loopholes leave them exposed to pressure to put in unsustainable hours – conditions, they say, that have contributed to deaths.

Labour activists say they have compiled accounts from relatives of 14 people whose deaths this year they attributed to a system that means workers have to put in unreasonably long hours to make ends meet.

Jeong Sang-rok, a parcel delivery worker for CJ Logistics, pushes a handcart in Gwangju, South Korea.

Jeong Sang-rok, a parcel delivery worker for CJ Logistics, pushes a handcart in Gwangju, South Korea. Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

One of those who died was Kim Won-jong who developed breathing difficulties at work. His father blamed the relentless demands of his job.

“He was running around, running around for 14 hours without time to eat,” his father, Kim Sam-young, said at a labour rally in October as he held a portrait of his son.

Another delivery worker, Seo Hyung-wook, suffered chest pains and breathing problems at work and died later of heart failure, his sister said. She too blamed the pressure of work.

One worker committed suicide after leaving a note about the hardships at work, a trade union said.

“Fifteen people already died, which is ironic, because we aren’t working to die but to live,” said Jeong.

Full-time workers in Asia’s fourth largest economy have a cap on weekly work hours, representation by powerful unions and holidays, under improvements over the past decade.

But delivery people and others working under subcontracts are regarded as self-employed and do not get the minimum hourly wage, nor overtime, and most have no insurance for on-the-job injuries.

There are some 2.2 million such workers, equivalent to 8% of the workforce, according to government data.


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