Being overworked to death in South Korea

The pandemic has driven an unprecedented boom in online business South Korea.

But that has come at a sobering cost: fifteen delivery workers have died so far this year.

Their families blame health failure caused by extreme overwork.

Jeong Sang-Rok works 14 hours a day without a lunch break to deliver hundreds of boxes.

"Fifteen people already died, which is very ironic, because we are not working to die, but to live."

Many delivery workers are denied safeguards and basic benefits, such as minimum wage, overtime, or insurance.

Most are classified as "self-employed", hired under what some refer to as 'gapjil contracts'.

It's a legal blindspot that affects around 8% of South Korea's workforce, says Kim Tae-wan – the leader of a union of 5,000 couriers.

"There are many 'gapjil contracts.' While general workers are guaranteed by employment contract, delivery workers cannot be protected because we are treated as self-employed. That leaves us exposed to abuse of power."

Labor officials say cut-throat competition adds pressure to cut delivery fees, which averages 72 cents per package.

Activists compiled accounts of those whose deaths have been attributed to the system.

Some developed breathing problems and chest pains - leading to heart failure or, in at least one case, suicide.

Public outcry prompted apologies from big firms and acknowledgement from South Korea's labor minister.

But many hold out little hope of change at a time of record unemployment.

Meanwhile, logistics firms are cashing in.

Sang-Rok's firm, Hanjin Transportation, posted a 35% increase in first half-year operating profit.

Video Transcript

NARRATOR: The pandemic has driven an unprecedented boom in online business in South Korea, but that has come at a sobering cost. 15 delivery workers have died so far this year. Their families blame health failure caused by extreme overwork. [INAUDIBLE] works 14 hours a day without a lunch break to deliver hundreds of boxes.

INTERPRETER: 15 people already are dead, which is very ironic because we're not working to die, but to live.

NARRATOR: Many delivery workers are denied safeguards and basic benefits, such as minimum wage, overtime or insurance. Most are classified as self-employed, hired under what some refer to as gap [INAUDIBLE] contracts. It's a legal blind spot that affects around 8% of South Korea's workforce, says Kim Tae Won, the leader of a union of 5,000 careers.

NARRATOR: There are many gap [INAUDIBLE] contracts while general workers are guaranteed by employment contract, delivery workers cannot be protected because we are treated as self-employed. That leaves us exposed to abuse of power.

NARRATOR: Labor officials say cutthroat competition adds pressure to cut delivery fees, which averages $0.72 per package. Activists compiled accounts of those whose deaths have been attributed to the system. Some developed breathing problems and chest pains, leading to heart failure or, in at least one case, suicide. Public outcry prompted apologies from big firms. An acknowledgment from South Korea's Labor Minister. But many hold out little hope of change at a time of record unemployment. Meanwhile, logistics firms are cashing in. Hanjin Transportation, Sanrocks' company, posted a 35% increase in first-half year operating profit.