SEOUL -- The text message, sent at 4:30 a.m., starts with an apology.
"Sorry, I know you're sleeping," a 36-year-old delivery driver for Hanjin Express surnamed Kim wrote to a colleague after a day during which he delivered 420 packages. By the time he got home, he said, he would have no time to sleep, he would eat and shower, then head back to the terminal for another long day.
The last sentence reads, "I'm having such a tough time."
A few days after sending the message, Kim was found dead in his home, a union representing delivery drivers said. His case is one of 14 similar deaths of drivers that advocates have attributed to cardiovascular ailments caused by excessive work, as the coronavirus pandemic has led to a massive increase in parcel delivery volumes.
The spate of deaths has spurred a reckoning in South Korea with the country's culture of quick, inexpensive deliveries, and rekindled long-standing concerns over worker safety.
The predicament in South Korea is analogous to other Asian countries, including China and Malaysia, where food and parcel delivery drivers have in recent months organized to protest against what they call unfair payment systems and unsafe conditions.
Parcel deliveries were rapidly increasing in South Korea even before more shoppers chose online commerce over in-person store visits in response to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the National Logistics Information Center, a government body, there were 2.79 billion parcel deliveries in South Korea in 2019, a nearly 10% increase from the previous year.
South Koreans customarily work exceptionally long hours, and workers in low-skilled jobs such as delivery and taxi drivers have long suffered low wages and grueling working conditions. A study released last year by the Korea Transport Institute found that delivery drivers work an average of 12.7 hours per day, 25.6 days per month with average monthly earnings of 3.02 million won (US$2,677).
The South Korean economy was down 390,000 jobs on-year in September, according to Statistics Korea, leaving workers with few options.
Advocates are attempting to seize the moment to pass legislation that would guarantee less arduous working conditions for delivery drivers. Unions are also pushing a separate proposal that would hold companies liable if a worker dies on the job.
"Legislation is necessary to prevent drivers from dying and to push companies to create safe working environments," Jung Jae-hyun, an official at the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, told Nikkei Asia.
The left-leaning ruling Democratic Party is this week carrying out investigations of working conditions at courier distribution centers. On Tuesday, party leader Lee Nak-yeon visited a major sorting center in Seoul and pledged to pass legislation to protect delivery drivers within the current session of the National Assembly, where his party holds a commanding majority.
On Monday, in response to the public outcry over Kim's death, Hanjin, the company Kim worked for, pledged to end its practice of overnight deliveries and to hire 1,000 workers to sort packages before delivery, a task that customarily fell on delivery drivers who weren't paid for the extra time.
Drivers have long called for greater recognition of their contribution to South Korean society, particularly of the human toll behind such conveniences as deliveries of meals and groceries.
"When we're making deliveries, if the food spills, the customers and companies get so upset, but when workers shed blood, nothing happens. I think that's the main issue," Park Jung-hoon, a driver and member of Rider Union, a group that represents food delivery drivers, told Nikkei.
Such recognition appears to be growing after the recent deaths of drivers. MBC, a major broadcaster, reported Tuesday on a growing trend of households leaving drinks or snacks outside their doors for delivery drivers to take along with handwritten notes expressing gratitude and encouragement.
Lee Jae-myung, governor of South Korea's most populous province and a potential ruling party candidate for the 2022 presidential election, was among many who shared an online hashtag that translates as "It's ok if it's late."
In an Instagram post on Tuesday, Lee called on courier companies and the National Assembly to enact measures to reduce drivers' working hours and provide drivers with insurance.
He ended his message with a personal address to all delivery drivers, writing, "It's okay if the delivery is a day or two late. Please take care of your health."