‘Drivers have died’: South Korea’s couriers camp out for change

Logistics workers are occupying a major firm’s headquarters in a dispute that has become a flashpoint in upcoming election.

South Korean delivery drivers
Delivery drivers in South Korea have long complained of gruelling working conditions [File: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg]

Seoul, South Korea – In the frigid South Korean winter, a group of logistics workers is gathering around the clock with the goal of ending work-related deaths.

For more than 50 days, workers have occupied the headquarters of CJ Logistics in central Seoul, calling on management to hold talks and honour the terms of an agreement reached last year to ease the gruelling working conditions of delivery drivers.

On a recent night, a group of priests led a group prayer from behind a makeshift altar while workers holding candles sat cross-legged in rows on the asphalt ground.

“Drivers have died, and the situation is desperate. We feel like we have no option but to fight like this,” Nam Hee-jeong, a Seoul-based delivery driver and union organiser, told Al Jazeera on the sidelines of the gathering.

“The company is refusing to talk to us, so we’re out here struggling. We’ll be here until we can solve this,” Nam said.

Delivery drivers’ working conditions have been an issue of considerable public interest in South Korea in recent years, following several workplace deaths involving cardiovascular ailments that labour groups attributed to the stress of spending long hours loading and delivering packages.

CJ Logistics protest
South Korean delivery drivers are protesting around the clock at the headquarters of CJ Logistics for better pay and conditions [Courtesy of Steven Borowiec]

Those deaths took place as many delivery drivers worked upwards of 12 hours a day as parcel volumes spiked in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which South Koreans have purchased more goods online. Alongside the higher volume, came increased competition from newcomers like Coupang, an e-commerce giant often described as South Korea’s answer to Amazon for its speedy delivery of a broad range of goods.

That stiffer competition meant drivers had to work harder even as prices per delivery stagnated or declined. Drivers for some of the industry’s largest companies, including CJ Logistics, are not employees but independent contractors who are paid per delivery.

Tensions surrounding the protest spiked on Tuesday when striking workers attempted to disrupt traffic outside of a logistics centre south of Seoul.

The union-led action could backfire if law enforcement deems such acts illegal, said Kim Sang-kyum, a professor at the Dongguk University College of Law. “If public authorities see illegal actions and respond passively, that could undermine the rule of law,” Kim told Al Jazeera.

The public interest and tensions in the industry abated last year when workers and management reached a government-mediated agreement to improve working conditions. CJ workers say they are braving the winter cold because the company has failed to adhere to the terms of that deal.

While there have been no recent deaths attributed to gwarosa – literally “death by overwork” – the CJ workers say conditions have not improved and Jin Kyung-ho, a union leader, has pledged to go on hunger strike, refusing even water and salt, until CJ management agrees to hold talks. Workers are also calling on the company to direct more of the revenue generated by a recent price increase to workers.

Al Jazeera has contacted CJ Logistics seeking comment.

lee jae myung supporters
South Koreans go to the polls on March 9 to choose their next president [File: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg]

South Koreans will go to the polls to elect a new president on March 9, and solving the issue of harsh working conditions in the logistics sector will be one of many challenges the winner will face.

The race is effectively a two-candidate contest between Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Seok-yul, a former prosecutor, representing the opposition People Power Party.

In the run-up to the election, both main candidates have pledged generous fiscal spending to assist independent merchants and other groups whose fortunes have waned during the pandemic.

But the two candidates differ markedly in their comments on the question of delivery drivers’ conflicts with management. Lee, who has a bootstrapping personal story of having been born to a poor family and performed manual labour in his youth before studying to become a lawyer, has won endorsements from both of the country’s major umbrella labour unions.

Lee has a history of speaking out on behalf of workers, and oversaw a network of support centres for delivery drivers in his previous job as governor of South Korea’s most populous province.

The left-leaning candidate has pledged to enact a law ensuring the labour rights of independent workers, freelancers, and tech workers — many of whom are not protected under current South Korean labour law. Such a promise could be particularly appealing to logistics workers, who, as contractors, often do not have protections like health insurance, minimum wage or legal limits on their working hours.

On the other hand, conservative candidate Yoon has earned the ire of workers with comments some interpreted as insensitive. In one well-known example, while decrying the government’s decision to limit the workweek to 52 hours, Yoon said workers should be able to work up to 120 hours if they choose, spurring accusations that he was out of touch with working people’s reality.

More recently, when asked about the CJ workers’ strike, Yoon said workers and management should resolve their conflict without government involvement. Organisers representing CJ workers interpreted Yoon’s comment as implying that he would not support striking workers if elected.

A step towards a solution

As a first step towards a solution, the civic groups and government officials that reached last year’s agreement should reconvene to work out an authoritative interpretation of how to implement the terms, said Park Ji-soon, a professor of social security law at Korea University.

Workers and management should also figure out a more permanent forum to communicate and decide things like how to distribute the revenue generated by price increases, Park said.

“There is a recognised need for collective bargaining by workers in the courier industry,” Park told Al Jazeera, “particularly a collective bargaining system that is suitable to the special needs of those workers.”

Source: Al Jazeera