[Shortcut] Sorting out the delivery deaths

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[Shortcut] Sorting out the delivery deaths

A flurry of delivery-worker deaths reported earlier this year generated a great deal of interest and resulted in a rare consensus, with labor, management and the government agreeing that overwork is a problem and something needs to be done about it.

 
Despite so many meeting eye to eye so quickly, much was lost along the way.  
 
It is not all that clear whether the number of deaths is out of the ordinary given the large number of workers in the delivery business and the demographics. The mechanics of the process has also been somewhat glossed over. In a business where so many layers are coordinating to get a package from A to B, it has been easier to talk simply about the massive logistics companies at the top and the poor wretches on the road, leaving out the middlemen and the network of locations that are all important in making sense of the job.
 
It is in the end far more than a traditional management and labor story. It is one of many managements and an abundance of workers at many levels in a tale of moving boxes and shifting responsibility. Importantly it is one in which accountability has been lost in the shuffle as everyone in the equation scrambles to make money in the delivery boom.  
 
 
Q. I hear delivery workers have been overworked.

A. The overwork of deliverymen has been an issue for many years. But it recently got a lot of attention when 15 workers died during a very busy time earlier this year. Because of the pandemic, people are ordering more from home, and that has increased the demand for delivery.
 
The number of packages being delivered has increased around 10 percent every year since 2015 in line with the growth of the online market. But the growth this year was somewhat faster than normal.
 
The number of parcels delivered last year totaled 2.79 billion, according to data from Korea Integrated Logistics Association. More than half of that figure, or 1.6 billion parcels, was reached in the first half of this year.
 
But the number of delivery workers has not kept pace. CJ Logistics, which had a 47 percent market share last year, has kept its delivery headcount 21,000. Hanjin Transportation and Lotte Global Logistics increased their numbers by 14 percent and 18 percent, respectively, this year.
 
 
Delivery workers load packages onto a truck at a terminal in Seoul on Nov. 13. [NEWS1]

Delivery workers load packages onto a truck at a terminal in Seoul on Nov. 13. [NEWS1]



What are the working hours for deliverymen?

According to data provided by the Ministry of Employment and Labor, on Dec. 1, the majority of delivery workers were on the job at least 12 hours a day, and more than 14 hours during the peak seasons.  
 
The working hours are much longer than the weekly 52-hour workweek system adopted in Korea in 2018.  
 
“I start work at 8:30 in the morning and sort packages from sub terminal until 12 p.m. I deliver parcels until 9 to 10 p.m. if it ends early, and 12 a.m. if late,” a 27-year-old CJ Logistics delivery worker said.
 
Another delivery worker from CJ Logistics aged 30 said he works 13 hours from 7 a.m. through 10 p.m. “Compared to others, I finish early,” he said.
 
 
Do we know whether the deaths were actually work related?

It’s hard to tell.
 
Among the 15 delivery workers that have passed away this year, the death of Seo Hyeong-uk from CJ Logistics was confirmed as an “industrial accident” this month. Seo, who was a delivery worker based in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, had a heart attack on July 5. According to the bereaved, Seo did not have any illnesses, but started having chest pains since the workload jumped following the pandemic. Seo, who was a delivery worker for 7 years, delivered 7,000 packages a month.
 
Compensation & Welfare Service, under Ministry of Employment and Labor, determines whether an industrial accident has occurred.
Deaths of four delivery workers are still being investigated as industrial accidents, according to Kang Min-wook, an assistant administrator of a task force designed to prevent deaths of delivery workers. The task force was formed by activist groups and labor in July following Seo’s death.
 
According to Kang, it’s difficult to prove the link between the death and overwork because it’s not easy to determine their work hours, which is essential to determine whether it is an industrial accident.
 
“The time delivery workers start and finish work are not recorded precisely. Logistics firms and delivery contractors are not that cooperative.”
 
“Fifteen [deaths] is just the official number. There are a lot more. We just aren’t sure where it occurred or how many. When someone dies at work, it has to be reported to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, but that system isn’t applied in the field of parcel delivery because of the gapjil, or abuse of power, by delivery contractors.”
 
He added that delivery workers have “lives of a fly,” though he did not provide data comparing the mortality rate of delivery workers to the average mortality rate, which would be key in determining whether the deaths are out of the ordinary.
 
 
 


How does the delivery process work?

It starts when delivery workers collect parcels from sellers to be delivered to a sub terminal. Truck drivers, usually day workers, then transfer packages from the sub terminal to a hub, where packages are sorted by city and district.  
 
Following the sorting, the packages are moved to sub terminals, where delivery workers pick up their parcels. Automation, like wheel sorters that pick and categorizes packages that need to be delivered in different regions, helps at some sub terminals. This means delivery workers picking up parcels at a sub terminal without automation facilities have to select the packages one by one.
 
Some delivery workers only pick up parcels from sellers to a sub terminal, while others only pick up packages from a sub terminal to deliver to customers. Some do both.
 
 
Who do deliverymen work for?

Most delivery workers are independent business operators. They sign a contract with a local delivery contractor, which functions as a middleman between logistics firms and delivery workers. Signing a contract with a logistics company gives the contractor the right to deliver the company’s packages in designated areas.
 
In short, delivery workers are contractors to contractors who contract with the large logistics firms.
 
The workers get paid per delivery. The commission differs depending on region. Those handling parcels in areas where the population is dispersed usually receive higher commissions than those delivering in populated areas because they usually deliver fewer packages. The average commission per delivery last year was 2,269 won ($2.1), down 52 percent from 4,732 in 1997.
 
 
What do delivery workers want from the logistics companies?

Their biggest complaint is long working hours, which have been extended largely due to the time they spend sorting and collecting parcels they need to deliver from a sub terminal to loading them.
 
In the past, it only took one or two hours for a delivery worker to collect the packages from a sub terminal, according to Kim Se-gyu, a former head of training and publicity at the Taekbae Union, which represents delivery workers, during an MBC radio show.  
 
“These days, it could take up to eight hours, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. During holidays, delivery workers categorize and load packages until 3 to 4 p.m.”  
 
Delivery workers argue that sorting parcels is not part of their job, and that they’re doing it all for free, while logistics companies believe the task is part of their job.
 
Recent data from the Labor Ministry shows 46.1 percent of delivery workers want more workers brought in to help. Preventing gapjil is another demand.
 
Since most delivery workers are independent business operators, they are not covered by industrial accident insurance.  
Currently, delivery workers have to pay half of the insurance premium, while the other half should be paid by the contractor they sign with.
 
Some delivery workers agree to work without accident insurance or to pay all the premium themselves.  
 
“Gapjil by the logistics firm includes being forced to paint the truck to company logo,” said the 27-year-old delivery worker from CJ Logistics. “Although the company pays for the cost, the truck is our own possession. We are forced to resign if we don’t abide by the company rule.”
 
What solutions are logistics companies proposing?

In response to the demands, CJ Logistics announced in October it was adding 4,000 workers to help sort packages at sub terminals starting in November. This cost the company an estimated 50 billion won annually. The company also announced flexible working hours to reduce time on the job and to make sure workers don’t deliver more than a reasonable number of packages per day. Another plan is to make sure that all delivery workers are registered for industrial accident insurance by the first half of next year. It won’t be extending contracts with delivery contractors that force delivery workers not to register for insurance. Investing in the development of automation technologies was another plan CJ Logistics proposed.
 
CJ Logistics has already installed wheel sorters that categorize packages at most sub terminals. Now, 95 percent of packages are automatically sorted, according to Jo Jeong-hun from CJ Logistics. But delivery workers argue that isn’t enough because the wheel sorter helps pick out more than one delivery worker’s packages, and therefore, several delivery workers have to sort out the parcels again.  
 
Hanjin Transportation and Lotte Global Logistics also announced plans to add 1,000 workers each to sort parcels. This is estimated to cost each company around 12 billion won annually.  
 
 
How is the government responding?

In November, the government announced measures to prevent the overwork of delivery workers. The Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Land, Transport and Infrastructure announced a set of guidelines aimed at enhancing delivery working conditions, like setting the maximum number of daily working hours for delivery workers in accordance with their workload.  
jin.minji@joongang.co.kr
 
BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]
 
 

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