South Korea's Coupang faces accusations of deaths from overwork

Critics of Coupang, include Park Mi-sook (R), the mother of a logistics center employee who died from overwork. She called at a press briefing in Seoul last week for the company to improve its working conditions. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
1 of 2 | Critics of Coupang, include Park Mi-sook (R), the mother of a logistics center employee who died from overwork. She called at a press briefing in Seoul last week for the company to improve its working conditions. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, April 27 (UPI) -- South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang saw its global profile soar after a high-profile initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange last month, but at home it continues to be shadowed by deaths of employees that critics allege are due to grueling hours and unsafe conditions.

Nine Coupang workers, including two subcontractors, have died over the past year due to an "inhumane working environment," lawyer Kwon Young-gook, co-chairman of the Committee for Coupang Workers' Human Rights and Health, said at a briefing for international media in Seoul last week.


Kwon and other advocates for workers at Coupang, often described as the Amazon of South Korea, are pushing to form a labor union and are calling on the company to improve conditions for its delivery drivers and employees at fulfillment centers.

"There is nothing more precious than human life and safety," Kwon said. "The management method of running a business at the expense of people's lives should not be tolerated for any reason. Humans are not machines."


Critics say Coupang keeps its workers, many of whom are employed on short-term contracts, under extreme pressure to fill orders in crowded and unsafe fulfillment centers without adequate time for breaks or rest.

The company tracks productivity closely, the advocates said, using a measure of units per hour -- a practice Coupang said it has stopped.

The company's Rocket Fresh delivery service, which ships orders placed in the evening to customers' doorsteps first thing the next morning, also has created a heavy demand for exhausting overnight shifts, Kwon said.

One worker, Jang Deok-joon, 27, died in October from a heart attack after coming home from his 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift at a Coupang logistics center in the southeastern city of Daegu. His mother, Park Mi-sook, since has been one of the most outspoken critics of Coupang.

"The working conditions at the logistics centers are really poor," she said at the press briefing.

"There are too many products and not enough workers to move them," she said. "It will cost more for Coupang to make a worker-friendly environment in its warehouses, and Coupang is unwilling to pay for it. You can understand why we are raising our voices like this."


Jang's was the only death among the nine that was officially recognized as work-related by authorities.

Coupang denied that Jang was overworked, but Park fought to get an official ruling from the Korea Workers' Compensation and Welfare Services in February, which required an autopsy and testimony from a fellow worker -- a huge challenge because most employees are afraid to speak out against the company, she said.

Coupang publicly apologized, but Park said she has yet to receive any direct communications from the company or compensation for her son's death.

Critics have also cited Coupang for attempting to muzzle media coverage of the company by suing individual journalists who have written about the worker deaths.

"They are disguising their deadly working environment and suppressing journalists and media with their financial capital," Yun Chang-hyeon, chairman of the National Union of Media Workers, said at the briefing.

In a joint statement released last week, the International Federation of Journalists and the UNI Global Union also condemned the lawsuits.

"It was brought to our knowledge that in three instances where journalists have reported on these deaths, Coupang has filed a lawsuit against the journalist and claimed substantial damages," the statement read. "This is a clear attempt at silencing the media and an attack against freedom of speech."


Coupang operates more than 100 fulfillment centers in South Korea and said that 70% of the country's 52 million people live within 7 miles of a warehouse. The company also runs its own delivery fleet with more than 15,000 drivers.

As the largest e-commerce player in a crowded market, Coupang has become a ubiquitous presence in South Korea, with its delivery trucks a common sight and its parcels on seemingly every doorstep.

The company raised $4.6 billion from its IPO in March, marking the largest splash for an Asian company in the U.S. stock market since China's Alibaba went public in 2014.

The entire online shopping industry in South Korea saw massive growth last year under the COVID-19 pandemic, with an increase of 21% in the number of parcels delivered, according to government data.

The demand has led to a surge of deaths due to "gwarosa," the Korean term for overwork, across the logistics industry, trade unions say.

Coupang has challenged the assertions that its working conditions are dangerous, saying the company has had zero accident-related deaths and only one work-related death in 10 years, far below the industry average.

"Coupang is committed to continuing to lead the logistics industry by prioritizing the safety of our workforce," a representative of Coupang wrote to UPI in an email.


The company has removed the units-per-hour metric from all its systems, has deployed mobile air-conditioning units, heaters and air circulators throughout its facilities and hired additional staff to reduce the workload, according to the representative.

"Last year, Coupang also added around 12,500 people to [fulfillment centers] alone and made investments reaching 500 billion Korean won [$448 million], which are all continued efforts to ease the workload," the company said.

However, Kwon and other advocates question the impact of the changes and maintain that it is vital for the workers to have more of a say in their conditions.

"To solve the problem, workers need a channel to raise their voices, which is a labor union for Coupang," Kwon said.

Efforts have begun to reach Coupang workers online and in person, with union organizers visiting at the entrances of work locations and at local bus stops.

Kwon acknowledged that the road ahead would be difficult, pointing to the failed effort by Amazon workers to form a union at an Alabama warehouse earlier this month.

But he held out hope for a union at Coupang and said it might provide fresh inspiration for Amazon workers back in the United States.


"I strongly believe that we can successfully establish a labor union at Coupang," Kwon said. "And afterward, I have hope that our success can give encouragement to the Amazon workers, as well."

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