When co-workers checked the home of Kim Dong-hee after he missed his shift as a courier in Seoul, they found his body. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but colleagues blame his workload. A few days earlier, the 36-year-old had texted one of them, "I am just too tired." The day his body was discovered in October, a delivery driver in the city collapsed and died on his route. "I remember how tired he looked late in the evening, his shoulders slumped and his cap pulled low, as if he were semiconscious," a customer wrote online after Kim Won-jong's death. It's a familiar story in South Korea, where demand for goods to be delivered has risen 30% during the pandemic, to an estimated 3.6 billion parcels for the year. So far, 15 couriers have died, the New York Times reports. The delivery workers say the cause is "gwarosa"—death by overwork.
South Korea cut the maximum workweek from 68 hours to 52 in 2018, citing workers' "right to rest." But the change didn't apply to delivery workers, who are contractors for large companies, working on commission and using their own trucks. Those commissions have dropped as companies charge shoppers less for deliveries even while promising faster service; the workers receive 60 and 80 cents per package. Just before he died, Kim Dong-hee had delivered more than 400 parcels by the time he was 21 hours into a shift, per the BBC. The father of a 27-year-old driver who died after working all night—and who lost 33 pounds after 18 months of night shifts—said, "I am to blame for not discouraging him from working so hard and exploiting himself." In the wake of the deaths, several companies have promised to reduce workloads. (Read more South Korea stories.)