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By Lee Minji
SEOUL, Aug. 14 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's convenient and super-quick online shopping culture has been a relief for many who opt to stay home during the new coronavirus pandemic.
Almost every item one can think of -- from pet food to paper straws -- is delivered to doorsteps in two or three days at the latest, with big online retailers promoting "morning star" or "rocket" delivery services that ship items in just a few hours as they vie for a bigger stake of the competitive market.
But this comes at a price that often goes unseen. Tens of thousands of delivery workers, toil six days a week, taking on hourslong extra tasks, such as categorizing items and loading them on trucks, in addition to delivering the parcels to homes.
A 2018 report by the Korea Transport Institute showed that delivery drivers worked 12.7 hours a day, 25.6 days each month on average. This translates to much longer working hours compared with the 52-hour workweek scheme the government is pushing for.
A labor union of parcel delivery workers has a much more grim estimate of working hours, which it says ranges from 12 to 16 hours. It says that, with the new coronavirus, shipping volume has also jumped by 30 to 40 percent.
In addition to the long hours and arduous physical work -- which can involve carrying a dozen 1-liter mineral water bottles to a third-story flat without an elevator -- a spike in shipments, mostly attributed to the virus pandemic, coupled with the country's damp and wet summer weather and new social convention of wearing face masks that make breathing more difficult, have changed things for the worse for delivery workers.
But this will stop -- at least for a day -- on Aug. 14.
Major delivery companies that control around 80 percent of the market -- including CJ Logistics, Lotte Global Logistics, Hanjin and Logen -- as well as the national post service have agreed to designate Friday as a "refresh day for delivery workers."
With Aug. 15 being Liberation Day, which is celebrated as a public holiday here, many delivery workers are expected to enjoy a three-day weekend holiday for the first time in nearly three decades.
The decision came as a labor union representing delivery workers demanded a symbolic holiday for delivery drivers, pointing out harsh working conditions for the workers who are usually special contract workers.
This means that rather than being employed by a company, most delivery workers are heads of one-man companies that are not protected by labor law since they are employers not employees.
For now, most seem to be happy with the "no-parcel day."
Many online shopping mall owners have uploaded posts, reminding customers that delivery is not available on Friday and thanking delivery workers for their hard work.
On social media, consumers are posting messages of gratitude, with some sharing photos of vitamin drinks or little treats left out for workers to have between deliveries.
President Moon Jae-in also mentioned the special holiday in a July 18 tweet, touting the delivery workers as serving "leading roles" in overcoming the new coronavirus, along with medical workers.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also called them "hidden heroes" in tackling the infectious virus that has affected 14,873 people in the country.
On Thursday, the labor ministry and delivery businesses announced measures to make the temporary Aug. 14 holiday an annual one and to push to improve working conditions.
But delivery workers and their families say more fundamental changes are critical in making the industry more sustainable, or at least to protect the workers from dying from overwork.
"My husband, who was looking forward to going on a trip for the first time in eight years, was dead when I tried to wake him up in the morning," Seo Han-mi, the wife of delivery worker Jeong Sang-won, who passed away three months ago, said in an Aug. 11 press conference. "CJ Logistics has never properly apologized. I hope working conditions will improve for laborers."
Some say that wrong work conventions should be fixed before the fall when shipping volume is expected to further increase in line with the country's traditional Chuseok holiday when people send gifts.
"Intensive labor continues to Saturday, which is a weekend," Jin Kyung-oh, who leads a special committee on preventing delivery workers from dying from overwork, said in a July 28 press conference.
"Parcels that are urgent can be delivered, but for those that are not, (companies) need to allow delivery to be delayed to the following Monday."
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