The Expugnable Link: What COVID-19 Has Disclosed
  • Hyewon Jeon, Younghwa Kim, Kyung Hee Na
  • Updated 2020.05.12 15:08
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The quiet scenery of Seomun Market in Daegu, where most stores are closed on March 10. ⓒSisaIN Seon-young Shin

A Coupang courier lost his life – a 46-year old gentleman. In the early dawn of 2 AM of March 12th, he was found dead in a stairway between the 4th and 5th floor of an apartment building located in Ansan. He was delivering 10 boxes of consignment sprinting up and down the stairs. One of his colleagues started searching for him after half an hour when they found out that Kim stopped working at about 1AM. Kim, who was found collapsed, could never have recovered even if CPR had been done right away. Local police determined the exact cause of his death as ischaemic heart disease.

He had two kids. He was working at Coupang logistics as a part-time job after he had left his career. Hired for a three-months period, he got some basic job training from a local branch for two days on February 14th and 15th and was placed in an ‘accompanied delivery’ with a veteran worker for the next two days. On the 18th of February, he was told to deliver alone by himself from then on. The night shift that Kim was assigned to was responsible to have their primary consignment done by 3 AM and their secondary ones by 7 AM.

February 18th, which was when Kim first started working, was when COVID-19 started spreading explosively especially within devotees of “The New World “, and especially in Daegu area. A courier working for Ansan-1 Camp (a distribution center) said; “I feel like the total amount of shipments has increased by more than 30% after COVID-19 broke out. Though the number of customers is still the same, they are ordering more both in quantity and in volume. Daily necessities like rice, kimchi, milk, and yogurts are the ones that are especially hard to deliver”. According to their policy, a courier does not deliver a product when the product weighs over 21kgs (or 46 pounds). However, when it comes to delivering multiple purchases, there are no such regulations about the weight and quantity of consignments or the number of households to deliver.

Kim was a contract worker on a night shift. Contract workers who have worked less than 2 years make up more than 80% of total workers at Coupang. They are sorted into ‘Normal’ and ‘Light’; ‘Light’ workers are allotted to deliver 75% of what ‘Normal’ workers do. And that is why they get paid less. Kim, who joined the Camp as a ‘Light’ worker, was at the bottom in the company’s wage table, which consists of 9 different levels.

Not only did the company hire more couriers to deal with the increased demand for consignments, but it also came up with a new distribution system called “Coupang Flex” in which they pay unhired people to deliver goods using their own vehicles. People make money from commissions paid for each consignment. They are so-called “Platform Workers”. Coupang explains that they have tripled the number of people working for Coupang Flex to handle the increase in volume of online orders due to COVID-19.

It was 11 PM on March 17th, when 5 days had passed since courier worker Kim was found dead in a frosty stairway. Gates of Ansan-1 Camp he once worked for were teeming with sedans, SUVs standing by in a double file. In the order of arrival, they entered the Camp one by one to load their assigned consignment. Park-Sungwoo, who was waiting right in front of the gate, said he has been moonlighting for Coupang Flex. “I work as a makeup artist for movies and TV shows. Because of COVID-19, shooting schedules are kept being delayed. And to make things worse, I could not find another job to make some money. That’s why I started working here. I usually deliver 50 to 60 products a night, but the company is paying me less than before. It used to be 1000 KRW per delivery, but it is now not more than 800 or 900 KRW” he said.

On March 18, Choi Se-wook, director of the Coupang branch of the Airport Port Transport Headquarters, holds a press conference calling for better working conditions. ⓒSISAIN Nam-Jin Cho

He has also heard of the death of his co-worker Kim on a news report. “Though I have few chances to work with couriers, I felt insecure,” he said. “We are also under tremendous time pressure. Whenever I cannot have everything delivered by 7 AM, I get a phone call from the manager. If I do not make it on time, I will not be able to work anymore. There is also what is called a ‘blacklist’. Even if I feel weary and burnt out, I need to finish every consignment on time. I also experienced feeling dizzy while I was on my way to deliver a couple of days ago.”

It has been 3 weeks since Ju-Dongchul, who teaches wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and karate at a martial arts gym he runs, has started to work for Coupang Flex. He is also another victim of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. “It is said that most of these people could never have imagined working here, even two weeks ago,” he said. “Both the number of A-type cars which deliver more than 100 items per night and B-type cars which deliver less than 100 items used to be 40 to 50 before COVID-19, but it is now higher than at least 90. That is why sometimes the work is a wild goose chase. A few days ago, I was waiting right here, and the manager asked me; ‘There aren’t so many to deliver, so I don’t think you would get more than 10 each. Do you still want to work tonight?’ and I was like ‘Nope, I quit.’”

The market condition of the martial arts gymnasium he runs is absolutely devastating. “We usually start advertising and promotion from January on and begin regular lessons in February. That is how we can afford to live for a year. Though more than 20 people a day contacted us before, nobody has asked to join the membership after COVID-19 broke out in February,” he said. A public official from the city hall called us and warned ‘if somebody among the members is confirmed to have COVID-19 while the gym is not closing, then we must publicize the name and the corporate registration number of the gym’. I was compelled to temporarily close the gym on the 1st of March and I reopened it yesterday, which was 2 weeks after closure. Only 6 of 60 people before are remaining.”

Ju could not afford to pay his monthly rent of 0.88 million KRW (750 USD). He got a text message to pay for it from the landlord yesterday. He could not even reply to it. He canceled his installment savings plan, sold his car and some gold to pay for wages for three masters working in his gym. He also got a cash advance on his credit card. “My friend, who also runs a gym, applied for loans for small businesses from the government. He said he will not be able to get any money before at least 2 months since there are so many applicants. Financial support after two months? It’s no use at all.”. Ju, a ‘platform worker’ who gets 42,000 KRW (35 USD) for delivering 60 items in 3~4 hours, expresses a somewhat complex opinion about the tragedy of Kim, a contract worker. “I also feel bad about him, but I don’t know what would have happened if he had shared his work with us. Couriers and we are standing in a different position. We suffer from a lack of work.”


Caregivers, The Invisible Man

Kim, the contract worker, could never stop working even though he got exhausted from heavy work. Ju, the platform worker, could not get work even though he wanted. On the dark side of the courier service industry, which is believed to benefit from the social distancing of COVID-19, the life of the marginalized is often severely threatened.

Dae Nam Hospital, located in a small city in southern Gyeongsang province, is a place where 101 patients were infected with COVID-19 among 103 patients in the department of psychiatry. Lim, who was the caregiver who worked for the patients in a closed ward, died from COVID-19 which he was infected with from nursing infected patients while not knowing it. A 77-years old senior. He was suffering from diabetes. Though he got the disease, he went to work at the hospital every morning, because he could not find a job near his home. He got paid 4,200 KRW (3 USD) per hour. Isn’t this against the Minimum Wages Act? It’s not. Except for a few cases, caregivers are not classified as workers or self-employed: they are special labor employers. Since they have legal rights as individual businessmen, labor acts like the Minimum Wages Acts are not applied.

According to what Ms. Kim – who works at a hospital in the Daegu area - said, caregivers are often regarded as ‘invisible men’ or ‘aliens’ even in the COVID-19 crisis. “Various medical examinations are given to and actions are taken for the patients, but nobody cares about us. When a confirmed case exists in a hospital, nurses know about it, while we do not. We care for the patients having their meals and change their diapers, but there is no occupational health and safety insurance for us. Unemployment benefits are never paid even when we quit working because we feel anxious. My grown-up children keep telling me to quit the job, even if it means giving up some money. We barely got two facial masks from the hospital after making constant requests”. She was in the legal status of an ‘individual businessman’ for 10 years when she was working as an insurance planner. There was no difference in her legal status as an individual businessman for the next 14 years when she was working as a caregiver. Ms. Kim, who has been the head of a household after the death of her husband, said “We are undoubtedly working very hard, but I don’t think we are treated humanely. I hope someday, at least younger generations would get the proper respect and treatment that they deserve”.

Suwon, Gyeonggi-do, has set up a screen for each counselor's seat at the Human Call Center to prevent COVID-19. ⓒSuwon-si

Nurses and caregivers are occupations that are most vulnerable to an infection with COVID-19, and most of them are women. The case of Guro customer service, where the first mass infection occurred in Seoul, is another case in point. “Workers were not allowed to leave even though some of them reported sick to work. Everybody knows the simple reason. The managers never allow us to do so. If someone is absent for any reason, the response rate drops and they are so sensitive about it” says 50-year old customer service representative Lee Jin-hee, who was in charge of answering customer service calls for the last 5 years at a customer service centre of an electronics company located in Gyeonggi province. Workers at the Guro customer service belonged to a subcontractor of one of the largest general insurance companies in Korea. Lee also belongs to a subcontractor, working all day answering angry phone calls at a 120cms long desk, facing a small monitor with a single partition dividing her from her co-workers.

“Prime contractors, they never care about workers of a subcontractor. Managers at a subcontractor are assessed only on their recorded performance of the rate of answering phone calls, so they never allow more than two workers to be absent for a day. They instruct you to just keep working. Sometimes we joke ‘If I get sick later in the future, you should pretend to be sick too; so that we both can get out of here in an ambulance. Or else we will never make it out of here.”. Watching the news reports about “The New World” COVID-19 infection cases, workers of customer service felt that they were basically in the same situation in terms of infections as “The New World” devotees. That’s the reason why they were not so surprised when a mass infection at Guro was reported - what they had been dreading had finally come true.

Customer service representative ‘A’, the confirmed case of COVID-19, also worked as a delivery worker for delivering functional food to businessmen working in the Yeoido area (which is the financial centre of Korea). After she has heard about how ‘A’ struggled to afford a living, Lee says “The managers of customer service centres make no secret of preferring people of poverty with heavy credit card debts as their workers. None of them have joined a labor union. They usually do not even have one. The government must forcefully encourage the workers to have an association to represent their own communal will after the dust settles. That’s the only way for the workers to be able to speak out.”

An attorney named Yoon-JiYoung, working in a civil organization for laborers and gathering reports from workers, has said that “reports are getting worse as time goes by.” “There were many reports of managers forcing workers to use their annual leave at the beginning of the crisis. After that, the reports were changed to having been forced to take a leave of absence and then to resign due to the financial hardship of the company.”

A dispatched worker working for Korean Air, who is in her early 30’s, told us that she has been on unpaid leave for two weeks since the first of March. She has been controlling the immigration for international flights; guiding passengers in the department lounge, checking out their tickets, and checking out their luggage. “We were told that some of the workers would get fired even before the pandemic because reconstructing would need to be done within the company due to the social boycott against Japan. Only a few were forced to take unpaid leave in the very first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, but the number of people put on leave is growing constantly. Because the company can no longer withstand the harsh market condition, they’re urging us to resign. Two new recruits who have been working here for 10 or 11 months have signed a new agreement to leave after 2 more weeks since after that they will be eligible in terms of their working period to receive severance pay.”

The government has announced emergency funds to airlines to help maintain employment, but it is of no use to her at all. “Dispatching companies never get helped by the government. Unpaid leave for a day is being done right now, but executives and managers are searching for any volunteer to leave without being paid for the whole month of April. Nobody knows what is going to happen next. Some workers are seriously thinking of getting another part-time job.”

For those who could not even enter the labor market, COVID-19 left deep scars as well. Kim, who is 26, works as a part-time worker at two different cafes. One of them was usually visited by foreigners, but the number of visitors has dropped sharply. “The manager told me ‘Why don’t you quit working as the other part-time worker did?’ It seems to be a request, but I know it is a dismissal notice. So, I just agreed with it. In the other café I was working at, I offered the manager to work less than 15 hours a week so that they would not have to pay me an extra statutory leisure payment. I am preparing to apply for a permanent position, but I still need to make a living by myself till I get one. I feel extremely stressed about having trouble making money I have already planned with before. To make things worse, recruitment schedules of major corporations are still unstable and changeable. They usually give like a week to apply for a position after they announce their recruitment plan in the second week of March, but for this year they accept applications like self-introduction letters till the end of March. I guess they’re doing so since they also have no idea when the COVID-19 crisis will end. Samsung has delayed its recruitment to April.

Airplanes line up at the Incheon International Airport's moorings on March 8. ⓒSISAIN Nam-Jin Cho

“The State Was Never Equal for Every Citizen”

Soup kitchens are closed or only open for the homeless with their facial masks on. Convenience foods are the only rations supplied, and there are even some homeless whohave nothing but a single loaf of bread for two entire weeks. Kim-Sungyeon, who is a secretary-general of the Civil Organization for Prohibiting Disability Discrimination, once said; “13 disabled people were sent into a self-quarantine as a volunteer who worked at The Centre of the Disabled in Daegu has been confirmed as having COVID-19. They are not able to maintain a daily life without someone helping them. We demanded a supporting system for them from the government 5 years ago when MERS broke out, but nothing has changed since then. So, among those 13 disabled, five who can at least creep on floors by themselves should have stayed alone, for the other 8, who cannot move even a little by themselves, local volunteers and activists were sent to directly support them. Moreover, since we did not have enough volunteers, a volunteer had to deliver meals to multiple houses which can increase the possibility of infection. Quarantine aids from the government were raw rice and raw onions – and the disabled were not able to cook. So, we urgently sent packed lunches to them.

The feeble are the first to break down in times of tribulation. It is neither a shadow nor a gloom of disasters. It is an attribute of disaster itself. When more than 700 people died from a deadly heat wave in 1995 Chicago, the strata with the most victims were the seniors, the poor and the OHPs. The patients from the closed wards of the department of psychiatry of Dae Nam hospital were victims of mass infection by COVID-19. Korean society was under an unheralded attack by the virus when it did not even have a sickness allowance institutionalized for all citizens to get minimum medical support without concern about financial issues when they got an illness. The more vulnerable they are, the more victimized they are by a massive catastrophe. Loan support for the special employment workers by the government to help stabilize their financial difficulties was only available for those of 9 occupational categories that are subject to industrial injury insurance. “The state is never equal for every citizen” a special employment worker, working as a play-therapy instructor at a community rehabilitation facility, but is now on unpaid leave without unemployment benefits, stated. It is a naked reality of Korean society that COVID-19 has disclosed. 


translated by Jinwoo Yoon 
translation supervised by Franz Maier, Sumi Paik-Maier