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Economy

Deal reached after South Korean delivery drivers protest overwork

Couriers tell of 90-hour work weeks and fend off customer complaints

Delivery drivers protest in a central Seoul park against long working hours on Wednesday. (Photo by Steven Borowiec)

SEOUL -- As the hot summer sun rose over a park in the center of Seoul's financial district, thousands of delivery drivers clad in vests emblazoned with the slogan "No more deaths by overwork" sought shade under the trees. White-collar professionals toting briefcases and iced coffees passed by on their morning commutes.

As part of a nationwide strike, the drivers had spent the night on the concrete ground in the center of Yeouido Park to call attention to the harsh working conditions they endure.

Organizers of the protest say they picked this conspicuous spot, down the road from South Korea's parliament and in the shadow of skyscrapers where many of the country's most powerful companies have their offices, to communicate how the boom in online shopping is exacting a human cost on couriers.

"To solve this problem, to prevent drivers from dying, we need to raise our voices," Kang Min-wook, an organizer of the strike, told Nikkei Asia on the sidelines of the gathering. "It's not that we want more money. We just want to be freed from having to work such long hours and doing sorting work that the companies should take responsibility for," Kang said.

The strike appeared to add a sense of urgency to the union's negotiations with management, and the two sides reached a tentative deal, whereby the companies agreed to hire workers to sort packages in September, and to cap drivers' hours at 60 per week.

After the deaths of drivers garnered intense national attention late last year, logistics companies and drivers reached a deal on those two issues in January, but the companies later asked for a one-year grace period in implementation. Drivers said this week's strike was motivated by frustration with companies' inaction.

Normal deliveries are set to resume on Friday, Kang told Nikkei by text message on Thursday.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to huge increases in online shopping in South Korea, and logistics companies, including couriers Lotte Global Logistics and Hanjin Shipping, are competing with newcomers like e-commerce giant Coupang to offer quick, inexpensive deliveries. As drivers' workloads have ballooned, this competition has pushed their earnings per delivery lower. And because drivers are classified as irregular workers, they receive no minimum wage or paid leave.

Last year, labor groups attributed the deaths of 16 drivers to cardiovascular ailments that they said were caused by long hours of physically strenuous work. This week, the union that led the protests said a driver had fallen into a coma after delivering 250 parcels per day. The union said in a statement that the driver, a 47-year-old surnamed Lim, was discovered in bed by his wife, having an apparent seizure.

Lim lives in Seongnam, a satellite city south of Seoul, and had worked for Lotte Global Logistics for more than two years, the union said. Lim's wife told the union that he would leave for work at 7 a.m. and return home between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. six days a week, clocking more than 90 hours per week on the job.

The deal reached this week is tentative, and tensions between drivers and logistics companies could flare again if working conditions don't improve. Lee Byoung-hoon, a professor and expert on industrial relations at Chung-Ang University, argues that workers and management ought to keep up negotiations. "I think dialogue would be the only route to resolve the labor conflicts in the delivery sector," Lee said.

The strike is having ripple effects around the country, as many South Korean customers and merchants rely on couriers to transport time-sensitive items, including perishable food. The nation's postal service, which operates a widely used courier service, put out a statement this week warning customers to expect delays due to the strike.

A national association of seafood businesses posted a guide on its website, highlighting locations across the country where merchants are struggling with delays that could compromise the freshness of goods.

"Screams are coming from agricultural areas where parcel delivery workers have gone on strike," Nongmin Shinmun, an agriculture trade publication, said in a report. Farmers who grow seasonal items, like plums and melons that are harvested in early summer, are scrambling to find alternative means to distribute their products before they rot, the report said.

Drivers say the delays highlight the importance of their work to the functioning of the economy and stressed that the strike means discomfort and lost earnings for them. "You don't think this is inconvenient for us? Don't you think we'd rather be resting at home with our families?" said a driver in his 40s named Park, who gave only his surname out of concern for repercussions with his employer.

"This is just something we have to do to get the people of our country to notice our work," he said.

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