• Delivery drivers are dying of exhaustion in South Korea. 
  • A 48-year-old man was the most recent victim. His body was found in a low-budget rental in Seoul after a late-night shift.
  • A union representing couriers said this was the 17th such reported death since the pandemic began.
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A parcel delivery worker in Seoul, South Korea, has died from apparent overwork, a Seoul labour union reported.

South Korean news agency Yonhap News reported that the 48-year-old man, known as Lee, was found dead over the weekend in his 'gosiwon,' a cheap rental room in Seoul.

He had left his home in Changwon, a provincial city along the Southeast coast of South Korea, for the capital, to work as a contract worker for e-commerce giant Coupang Corp. 

His wife called the police on Saturday after being unable to reach him, and they discovered his body in the rented room. 

Representatives from the Taekbae Union labor group, which represents couriers, said that Lee had "often spoken to his wife about the difficulties of late-night work." 

Lee earned around $2,480 a month, just over the minimum wage, the union told Yonhap. It added that delivery drivers like Lee often work between 13 to 16 hours daily

Lee's death - the 17th such fatality reported in the country during the global Covid-19 pandemic - highlights global issues with the delivery economy and the punishing hours that couriers work to handle an overwhelming surge in package deliveries. 

Most of the 17 workers died of over-exhaustion, but one worker died by suicide after leaving a note about the difficulties of work, Reuters reported. 

Coupang Corp., the company for which Lee was working at the time of his death, is heading toward an IPO, and what it hopes will be a promising $50 billion valuation. However, as reported by the Financial Times, this optimism has been clouded by the fact that eight of its employees have died from what labor unions say are causes related to overwork. 

Insider has reached out to Coupang Corp. for comment.

Sub-contracted self-employed workers struggle for rights

The Covid-19 pandemic fuelled a boom in online orders in South Korea, with people turning to e-commerce portals to order food and other daily necessities. According to South Korean government data, parcel shipments surged 23% from February to October last year compared to the same period in 2019.

The pandemic boom has greatly benefited the top two delivery firms in the country that hold a 64% stake in the delivery market, with CJ Logistics posting a 21% increase in profits in the first half of 2020 and Hanjin Transportation clocking a whopping 35% increase.

But that boom hasn't trickled down to deliver workers, who say that they're caught in a 'deadly' legal blind spot, according to Reuters.  

The bulk of the country's 54,000 delivery workers are hired as sub-contractors and classified as self-employed, which means they're often denied the basic benefits that regular, fully-contracted employees would be entitled to, such as caps on weekly working hours. This loophole, unions say, has resulted in these couriers being made to work long, unsustainable, and punishing shifts without earning minimum wage nor being paid for working overtime.  

In November of last year, the BBC reported that disgruntled and exhausted South Korean delivery riders poured out into the streets as part of a union march, protesting the deaths of 14 delivery drivers who had died from 'kwarosa' - a Korean term referring to sudden death that is often due to heart failure or a stroke as a result of arduous work.

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