Live fast and leave a good envelope
Now, at last, the riders have a voice. It all started with an anguished letter from an anonymous motorcycle courier some months ago. Yoo Jeong-in, the head of an new advocate group for quick service men, is glad that the letter found him.
According to Mr. Yoo, the letter-writing motorcycle courier arrived in a sweat at a pharmaceutical building in Chungjeongno, central Seoul, after getting stuck in traffic. He was carrying a simple standard-sized manilla envelope. At the main lobby he was stopped and directed to a basement floor, which required him to go outside and take another entrance. He wrote that he was OK with that but when he re-entered the building, another security guard redirected him to a different entrance and told him to use the freight elevator. He was already late and told the guard that it was just an envelope. Even so, he was turned back with the answer that all couriers had to use the freight elevator in the back.
“The courier wrote that he felt personally insulted,” Mr. Yoo said recently at his office located on 8th street in Cheonggyecheon, downtown Seoul. “That angered plenty of riders who finally decided to speak up.”
Mr. Yoo used to be an “owner” who employed riders. It is a big change for him to become the head of a civic group that tries to help the 30,000 or so motorcycle couriers flying around the city. He started the movement out of anger in an attempt to protect his own employees. He sent protest letters to companies asking why his couriers were mistreated. One day a corporation sent him an apology and posted it on the Web site that he now runs under the title “Quick Service Human Rights Movement Headquarters.” He felt the Web site would help both owners and riders.
“You can well imagine how frustrated I was to start this movement myself,” said Mr. Yoo. “This is my 10th year in this business and things cannot get worse.”
Despite the lukewarm reception he was given by the bigger labor groups when he asked for their support at upcoming protests, he continued to council riders who had heard about him on the Internet. They came to him with various complaints. Older riders were embarrassed when they were yelled at like servants by younger clients who wanted their deliveries “now,” while others complained of bladder problems because building guards would not let them in to use the toilet. Some young riders said they chose to jeans so that they would look less threatening, even though that exposes them to a greater risk of injury.
Mr. Yoo advises them to remember that they should take off their helmet and gloves before entering a building ― although they are in a hurry ― unless they want to look threatening. He managed to organize a protest last year to “seek the human rights for Quick Service men” although only some 200 people attended and positive results have been slow in coming. Mr Yoo found that the situation for Quick Service businesses in Korea is more complicated than handling bossy clients and persuading couriers to obey traffic lights.
The Quick Service business drifted to Korea from Japan in the early 1990s and soon became a substantial industry. The Asian financial crisis in 1998 helped the industry to grow bigger. It was an easy business to start for anyone with a motorcycle and a mobile phone. From supply boxes and confidential envelopes to lost cell phones and laundry that needed to be collected, these Quick Service men settled in as lifesavers during the Seoul rush hour when most other traffic comes to a halt. The Seoul Metropolitan Government estimates the industry has revenues of 700 billion won ($744 million) annually.
“In the past, service from northern Seoul to downtown Seoul used to be 12,000 won, but now some companies offer the same service for 5,000 won plus coupons to steal our clients,” complained Sohn Mun-ik, head of Speedman, a Quick Service agency in the Dongdaemun area. “The newer companies are messing up the market’s stability and we can only ask our riders to drive faster to beat the competition.”
That’s the free-market so tough luck one might say, but Ryu Seugn-ho, a rider with four years experience, who recently joined the Korean Federation of Private Service Workers’ Unions, said such competition was threatening the riders because they are the ones who usually have to make up for any losses.
“We are not even insured for social insurance and allied services,” Mr. Ryu said. “It doesn’t make sense, 15 years since this business appeared and the law does not consider us to be laborers.”
According to Mr. Ryu, each rider has to find an agency and must have their own motorcycle. They pay up to 500,000 won a month to the agency to receive calls around the clock from agency operators who handle delivery orders. It is up to each rider to move fast if they want to make enough money to cover their costs and generate an income. He said he once suffered from tinnitus because he kept his earphone in his ear even when he went to sleep, just so he wouldn’t miss any calls.
“To make a basic 10,000 won per delivery, you have no idea what these Quick Service men must go through,” Mr. Ryu said.
There is not a single law to protect the riders. But many exist that prohibit them from doing certain things. They are prohibited from taking the Nodeul Road crossing Yeouido and the Nambu Circular Road in southern Seoul. A lot of buildings prohibit them from entering. When they get in an accident, it is not the agency’s responsibility to pay for the hospital fee.
Mr. Ryu said it would be impossible for riders to be available even for short interviews because they are always too busy. Nevertheless, I stepped into a waiting room in the corner of an alley near Sinseoldong subway station where Quick Service riders working in northern Seoul wait for the next order from their operator. Four men in black bomber jackets and knee protectors were sitting around a heating stove. On the table was a telephone and a checker board. Two people were staring hard at the telephone, while the other two were fidgeting anxiously with their PDAs and mobile phones,waiting for an operator to page them. It was difficult to break the silence.
Finally one man spoke up.
“They security guards treat us like robbers,” he said adding that he wants to be called “rider Kim” and that he is 49. “It’s no wonder because we are wearing elbow and knee protectors and a helmet and a pair of gloves.”
He pointed to an older man sitting quietly across the room.
“That man got in a big accident with a bus when he wasn’t wearing his protectors. He can’t ride his motorcycle anymore. He’s retired and drives a minivan now,” he said. Apparently, when couriers grow older, the agencies hire them to deliver parcels in minivans.
Another man, looking well into his 60s, said he also drove minivans, and he said he wanted to talk but he was afraid his children might see his name on the paper.
“They are embarrassed that I have this job,” he said, taking out a cigarette. “They are afraid that they will bump into me at their offices.”
A young man rushed in, closing the door behind him. He took off his helmet and ran to the toilet. He said he had not been able to use the toilet for hours. Although they complained, none of them said they would be interested in a protest to improve the rights of Quick Service riders. “Lady, if we don’t work for a day we don’t earn the money to buy rice,” the 49-year-old said. “Will you pay me for the loss I will make if I go on a protest?”
By Lee Min-a Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]