Workers at Amazon of South Korea protest ‘boiling pot’ conditions | Business and Economy


Hwaseong, South Korea – When Jeong Dong-heon returns residence from work at a Coupang logistics centre, he typically finds crusty white patterns on the again and sides of his shirt.

The flower-like shapes are created by gathered salt deposits – a results of the sweat that pours off his physique as he works at an enormous warehouse run by one in every of South Korea’s largest firms.

Jeong works from 8am to 5pm, finishing up bodily duties that embody lifting and carrying heavy bins. This summer time, South Korea has skilled record-setting temperatures and the warmth has change into so dizzying that Jeong typically worries about collapsing.

“Working within the warehouse appears like being inside a boiling pot,” Jeong, 29, instructed Al Jazeera.

Jeong is amongst a personnel organising for air-con to be thought-about not a luxurious, however a fundamental necessity for them to do their jobs safely. He and his colleagues are searching for to remind the corporate, and prospects, of the human sweat on the root of handy, fast deliveries.

Jeong Dong-heon
Coupang employee Jeong Dong-heon and his colleagues are organising for higher air-con and extra relaxation breaks at work [Courtesy of Steven Borowiec]

With warmth waves now a routine prevalence in July and August, staff need Coupang to decide to binding options. Their calls for: satisfactory air-con in all workspaces and a assured 20 minutes of relaxation time for each two hours of labor.

Coupang rose to change into South Korea’s main e-commerce agency with its speedy, cheap supply of a near-infinite array of products, from contemporary fruit to garden mowers and foot massagers.

Like its US rival Amazon, Coupang has confronted allegations that its high-tech dominance is constructed on the exploitation of staff. No less than two deaths have been reported on the centre the place Jeong works, and labour teams declare that strenuous office situations had been components. Final 12 months, a authorities physique linked the dying of a 27-year-old man at one other Coupang centre to his lengthy hours engaged on the warehouse ground.

In all seasons, work at Coupang is bodily taxing. An impartial 2021 research discovered that 73 p.c of staff reported their work to be extra intense than quick strolling. Half of the employees surveyed stated that they “at all times” felt exhausted after their shift, with almost 30 p.c saying they “typically” felt exhausted.

With greater than 60,000 staff, Coupang is South Korea’s third-largest employer, behind Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor Firm. When the corporate debuted on the New York Inventory Change final 12 months, it introduced plans to rent 50,000 extra workers within the nation by 2025.

Yoon Soo-hyun, a 43-year-old employee at a Coupang centre in Goyang, a satellite tv for pc metropolis north of Seoul, stated casual norms on the warehouse ground discourage staff from taking breaks.

Jeong
Some Coupang staff say the e-commerce large’s logistics centres are unbearably sizzling in the course of the summer time [Courtesy of Steven Borowiec]

“The corporate places out a number of chairs and tells us that if we’re drained, we are able to sit for some time,” Yoon instructed Al Jazeera. “However everybody feels nervous as a result of there are at all times supervisors watching us, seeing who’s on break and for the way lengthy.”

He added, “We don’t need to lose our jobs, so we simply do what we’re instructed.”

Coupang says it meets authorities requirements.

“We meet and/or exceed all health-related authorities rules for the indoor and outside working areas of our fulfilment facilities,” the corporate instructed Al Jazeera in a press release.

“If a employee has any well being problem for any cause whereas working at one in every of our amenities, they’re permitted to cease working.”

Although Coupang staff have organised in an effort to get air-con, some specialists say that giant areas like warehouses current distinctive challenges that make it tough to maintain them cool.

Jung Jin-woo, a professor at Seoul Nationwide College of Science and Know-how who research occupational security and well being administration, stated anticipating air-con within the warehouses is “unrealistic”.

“The centres have very excessive ceilings, they’re open 24 hours a day, and the area is greater than 15 instances bigger than a soccer area,” Jung instructed Al Jazeera.

Coupang
Coupang says its working situations meet or exceed authorities requirements [File: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg]

In the meantime, Coupang instructed Al Jazeera it has put in 20,000 cooling items, together with air conditioners and followers, in its logistics centres and gives air-conditioned break rooms on each ground. However staff say this doesn’t go far sufficient and the warehouses are nonetheless oppressively sizzling.

Whereas Coupang has constructed up an enormous buyer base in recent times, the agency’s efforts to remain forward within the fiercely aggressive e-commerce sector, together with main investments in automation, have resulted in steep losses.

The corporate recorded net losses of $405m within the final quarter of 2021 and one other $209m in losses in the course of the first quarter of this 12 months. Since debuting on the New York Inventory Change final 12 months, Coupang has confronted rising stress from buyers to show a revenue, analysts say.

The corporate’s near-term prospects are additionally sophisticated by the commonly weak financial outlook in South Korea, a rustic at present beset by sluggish development and excessive inflation.

“Folks have much less to spend, so there’ll in all probability be a slowing of Coupang’s income development,” Shin Se-don, a professor of economics at Sookmyung Girls’s College in Seoul, instructed Al Jazeera.

Regardless of the challenges staff face, Coupang nonetheless gives jobs which are enticing to many South Koreans, particularly these with out the tutorial credentials historically required for white-collar positions.

Coupang stated staff in its fulfilment centres can earn as much as 3.42 million gained ($2,652) per 30 days, a aggressive quantity in a rustic with a minimal wage of 9,160 gained ($7.03) per hour. The corporate additionally doesn’t require particular schooling or expertise credentials when hiring.

Coupang protest
Coupang staff final month marched 50km from the corporate’s headquarters in southeastern Seoul to a logistics warehouse to protest working situations [Courtesy of Steven Borowiec]

Jeong, who’s wiry and energetic, has labored at Coupang since April of final 12 months and says he’s dedicated to remaining there for the foreseeable future. He’s motivated not solely by his personal have to make a dwelling, however a want to enhance the lot of a rising variety of staff in an organization that’s quick turning into one in every of his nation’s most recognisable company manufacturers.

Final month, Jeong and different Coupang staff wheeled an air conditioner and marched 50km (32 miles) from the corporate’s headquarters in southeastern Seoul to the warehouse the place he works.

On the finish of the march, Jeong caught his breath within the shadow of the hulking constructing the place he spends his days. He described the battle for air-con as a step in direction of longer-term targets, like greater wages and extra say in firm affairs.

“This can be an extended battle,” he stated.

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