By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, June 4 (Yonhap) -- "Fast and predawn" delivery services by some e-commerce operators and major retailers here have enthralled many consumers for the speedy and on-time arrivals, and more recently the outbreak of the new coronavirus fueled demand for such services.
Their well-built logistics systems have been even cited as one of the key reasons why the country was not gripped by panic buying at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak here.
But cluster virus infections tied to a distribution center by e-commerce leader Coupang unintentionally put deliverymen's jaw-dropping workloads and dire working conditions in the spotlight.
E-commerce operators have seen an explosive growth in recent months amid the COVID-19 outbreak as more consumers opt to resort to online shopping to avoid infection risks by shunning visits to offline stores.
In particular, Coupang and Market Kurly, an online grocery delivery platform, have cemented their status in the highly saturated online shopping markets with overnight delivery services as the signature services, named Rocket Delivery and Morning Star Delivery, bring products or fresh food to doorsteps by dawn on the following day if consumers place orders before midnight of the previous day.
Virus cases tied to their distribution centers in Seoul and the surrounding area, however, have not only led to consumers' jitters about catching the virus from parceled packages but also brought to the fore delivery drivers' poor working environment amid soaring demand.
At least 119 cases have been traced to a distribution facility run by Coupang in Bucheon, west of Seoul. Market Kurly has reported one case.
Coupang said it has handled some 3 million deliveries per day since the coronavirus outbreak in late January, sharply up from around 2 million at the end of last year.
But to meet skyrocketing demand, workers at distribution centers were hard pressed to speed up the handling of parcels, with the implementation of anti-virus sanitary steps being relatively neglected. In a nutshell, faster delivery and fast handling of hundreds of parceled boxes a day is a tall order for workers.
"Company officials repeatedly said, 'Hurry, hurry! as we faced surging orders amid the COVID-19 outbreak," said a former part-time worker at a distribution center operated by Coupang.
"I often worked without properly wearing a mask as it is hard to breathe handling a heavy workload. But company officials did not instruct me to wear a mask."
Health authorities said workers at the Bucheon warehouse worked in a crammed environment without fully complying with quarantine measures.
Tough labor conditions facing delivery workers have not been a new issue, and there are growing calls from civic groups to improve "inhumane" working conditions faced by deliverymen and workers at distribution centers.
Automation and a limit on parcels handled could become an answer to reduce their heavy workloads.
SSG.COM, the online shopping unit of retail conglomerate Shinsegae, has a system that limits the number of orders per day to 130,000, and nearly 80 percent of work at its distribution centers is automated, reducing the need for human labor.
"For Coupang-like operators that handle various products and massive deliveries, it is very hard to automate the work process," Park Jong-dae, an analyst at Hana Financial Investment, said in a report.
Health authorities said there is a low possibility that COVID-19 could spread via parceled packages, but consumers' anxiety still lingers.
"The virus outbreak has prompted me to think whether to reduce the frequency of online purchases. Consumers will feel safe when online shopping operators thoroughly comply with basic quarantine steps," said Lee Jin-joo, a woman in her 40s, who asked for an alias to be used.
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