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[Editorial] Stop the death of couriers

Ten couriers have died, apparently from overwork, this year; government should improve their working conditions

Lamentable deaths of parcel couriers are occurring in succession.

According to a coalition of 67 civic groups and labor unions formed to improve their working conditions, a courier of Hanjin Express, identified as Kim (36), was found dead at his home in Seoul on Oct. 12.

Kim used to complain to those around him about his long work.

In a text message sent to his colleagues on Oct. 8, four days before his death, he said: “I will be home by 5 am and I have to eat, wash and go to the terminal right away to start sorting parcels. This is so hard.”

The labor intensity is mind boggling.

At the present stage, it is hard to say conclusively what the direct cause of his death was. But it is hard to deny that he handled an excessive workload like other couriers.

It was the 10th fatality this year linked to overwork among parcel delivery workers. Three of the ten died this month. On Oct. 12, the day Kim died, a 27-year-old day laborer who sorted parcels at a Coupang distribution center in Chilgok, North Gyeongsang Province, also died. On Oct. 8, a 48-year-old courier of CJ Logistics died on the job in Seoul.

Successive deaths of delivery industry workers brought attention to their poor working conditions.

The biggest cause of couriers’ prolonged working hours is the work of sorting out parcels. Usually it ends around lunch time even if they begin sorting at dawn. They spend more than half of their working hours on sorting. But there is no reward for that job. Their income depends on the number of parcels delivered.

Furthermore, parcel volume increased remarkably after the outbreak of COVID-19. But manpower hardly increased.

Sorting and delivering need to be done separately by different workers. Or, at least, sorting should be rewarded, if couriers do it.

Couriers are practically employed by home-delivery companies, but legally treated as indepedent subcontractors. This means that they have difficulties receiving protection under labor laws that target mostly company employees.

Industrial accident insurance exemplifies their legal disadvantage.

Employers must pay the insurance premiums fully, but it is not mandatory for independent subcontractors such as couriers to subscribe to the insurance. If they want coverage, they and their contract partner should split the premiums. About 84 percent of delivery industry workers asked for exemption from the insurance. They are said to request exemption because companies who distribute parcels to couriers want to avoid shouldering premium burden.

Lawmakers are emphasizing the need to improve systems related to subcontractors, with some of them proposing a bill to make it mandatory to insure couriers for industrial accidents. The government plans to conduct an emergency inspection of health and safety measures taken by major parcel delivery companies. These moves are belated. They should rush measures.

It is important to correct problems that have been exposed and to crack down on courier companies in connection with industrial accidents, but the government and the parliament must also take steps to upgrade couriers’ general working conditions and totally guarantee them the legal status as laborers.

To protect couriers’ health rights, delivery companies need to consider changing their work patterns into a five-day workweek.

The root cause of all of the problems facing couriers is the endless competition among parcel carriers trying to make faster and cheaper delivery to destinations.

Unless they guarantee couriers appropriate commissions on deliveries finished, it would be hard to reduce delivery quantities. The government needs to set a minimum fee per delivery.

Parcel delivery companies should refrain from seeking profits at the cost of labor conditions of couriers.

Consumers will have to be willing to endure a small inconvenience of a longer delivery times and pay additional delivery costs if needed to help couriers live a more humane life.