Early on the morning of October 12, 2020, 27-Twelve months-extinct Jang Deok-joon came residence after working his overnight shift at South Korean e-commerce big Coupang and jumped into the bathe. He had labored on the company’s warehouse in the southern city of Daegu for a slight bit over a Twelve months, hauling crates beefy of items ready to be shipped to offer hubs. When he didn’t reach out of the leisure room for over an hour and a half, his father opened the door to web him unconscious and curled in a ball in the bathtub, his hands tucked tightly into his chest. He used to be rushed to the health facility, nonetheless with out a pulse and failing to breathe on his have, doctors pronounced him ineffective at 9: 09 a.m. The coroner dominated that he had died from a coronary heart assault.
Jang’s memoir caught my study because he used to be the third Coupang worker to die that Twelve months, including to rising dispute in regards to the nature of the company’s success. And Coupang has been astoundingly winning: it has risen to alter into South Korea’s third-greatest employer in precisely about a years, harnessing a mountainous community of warehouses, 37,000 workers, a fleet of drivers, and a suite of AI-driven instruments to win a commanding intention in South Korea’s crowded ecommerce market. Coupang is in each intention in South Korea: half of residents beget downloaded its app, and its “Rocket Provide” service—the company claims 99.3% of orders are delivered inside of 24 hours—has earned it a recognition for “out-Amazoning even Amazon.”
Coupang’s exercise of AI to shorten offer instances is in particular putting: its proprietary algorithms calculate every thing from the most environment pleasant means to stack packages in offer trucks, to the true route and clarify of deliveries for drivers. In warehouses, AI anticipates purchases and calculates shipping time gash-off dates for outbound packages. This permits Coupang to promise offer in no longer as a lot as a day for hundreds of hundreds of items, from a 60-cent facemask to a $9,000 digicam. Such enhancements are why Coupang confidently funds itself because the “future of ecommerce,” and had been the utilizing pressure in the help of company’s recent launch on Nasdaq that valued the company at $84 billion—the greatest US IPO by an Asian company since Alibaba in 2014.
Nevertheless what does all this innovation and effectivity imply for the company’s workers?
That used to be the save a matter to I had in mind final summer time, sooner than Jang’s death, when I met several of Coupang’s warehouse and provide workers. Admire Jang, who had instructed his mother that workers had been treated love “disposable objects,” they had all skilled the dehumanizing effects of Coupang’s algorithmic enhancements. Some talked a pair of bruising tempo of work hitched to the expectations of superhuman offer instances. Others acknowledged it used to be complicated to even scramble to the leisure room at work. In 2014, when Coupang started offering Rocket Provide, its on-ask offer service, it had promised accurate careers with above-average benefits even to bottom-rung workers. Nevertheless someplace alongside the means, it seemed, the workers had been reduced to what South Korean labor journalist Kim Ha-younger has known as the “legs and hands of man-made intelligence.”
It’s no twist of destiny that fundamental of this criticism mirrored stories of working prerequisites at Amazon. Despite the actual fact that Coupang used to be founded in 2010 as a Groupon-love deals platform, it switched to Amazon’s vertically constructed-in fulfillment mannequin in 2014, pledging to alter into the “Amazon of Korea.” In doing so, it abruptly met the true identical complications with labor.
Stressful work, on ask
What makes Rocket Provide work is certain wager—a promise that Coupang’s algorithms will resolve exactly when a batch of deliveries wishes to scramble away the warehouse in clarify to design it to you on time. Within the company’s warehouses, these offer time gash-off dates reach approximately every two hours.
“I realized when I started working there that the sole precedence used to be assembly Rocket Provide time gash-off dates,” acknowledged Dart Geon, one inclined warehouse worker I spoke to. “We had been dazzling robots.” Dart went on scientific scramble away from his job at Coupang in Might possibly perchance perchance 2020 after tearing his left hamstring whereas running to meet a deadline. He has since been let scramble by the company.
Admire Amazon, Coupang has outdated a “unit-per-hour,” or UPH, metric to measure worker productivity in true time and defend the grueling tempo in its warehouses. Despite the actual fact that workers are officially given one hour of leisure for every eight-hour shift—the legally mandated minimal atomize—one driver I met final September instructed me that most other folks simply labored through their breaks to lift on schedule. He’s no longer with the company. In an emailed assertion to MIT Abilities Review, a Coupang spokesperson acknowledged that the company no longer tracks UPH at its warehouses. Nevertheless one recent worker I spoke to fair no longer too long previously instructed me that some warehouse managers are silent overtly monitoring work rate this means. “They no longer ceaselessly ever exercise the timeframe ‘UPH’ anymore,” he acknowledged. “Nevertheless they’ll silent hector you for being too sluggish, presumably in response to a pair obtain of concrete proof.”
At some level of the pandemic, from which Coupang has handsomely profited, the casualties of this obsession with hyperefficiency stacked up. From 2019 to 2020, work-linked injuries and diseases at Coupang and its warehouses practically doubled to 982 incidents. Since Jang Deok-joon’s fatal coronary heart assault, three extra Coupang workers beget died from what labor activists stutter used to be overwork (there beget been no reputable rulings on their deaths).
Nevertheless despite the troubles these deaths beget raised, none of them beget triggered so fundamental as a blip in Coupang’s operations. On the opposite, the company appears to thrive on how disposable its labor is. Despite the actual fact that it employs its workers immediately pretty than the exercise of subcontractors, the majority are reportedly employed on a day-to-day foundation the night time sooner than through an app known as “Coupunch,” or on non everlasting contracts that most ceaselessly final about a months. This adaptability enables Coupang to compare its labor funds to the ebb and waft of commerce and defend things lean.
Nevertheless the constant threat of being denied employment hangs over workers. For folk that negate dissent, checklist a place of work damage, or drop looking out their productivity requirements, Coupang is identified to make a choice contract extensions, workers instructed me.
In its assertion to MIT Abilities Review, Coupang acknowledged that the company “complies with the Labor Commonplace Act in every element including hiring and termination,” and that “the rate of renewal for the contract worker is better than 90 p.c.” Then another time, courts beget dominated in the previous that the company unfairly fired a worker who submitted a place of work damage claim.
“They design it very clear as rapidly as you’re employed that as soon as you residence off any roughly complications, you won’t be getting a contract extension,” Jeon Woo-oak, a inclined warehouse worker, instructed me.
Jang’s death exemplified how exploitative this intention may possibly perchance additionally be. As a day laborer who applied for shifts every night time through Coupunch, he had been anxious about his precarious employment intention. Nevertheless he had hoped to establish in the company’s genuine graces and observe for everlasting employment, his mother, Park Mi-sook, instructed me. Within the months main as a lot as his death, he had labored the 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, apart from to frequent time beyond regulation, for as a lot as 59 hours over seven consecutive days, earning minimal wage (the the same of about $7.60 per hour). “He may possibly perchance well be entirely worn out after the halt of every deadline,” Park acknowledged.
In 2019, as Coupang ramped up its overnight offer service that supplied a 7 a.m. offer guarantee for orders made the earlier night time, the amount of time gash-off dates throughout a conventional night time shift in the Daegu warehouse elevated from around three to seven, in response to 1 worker. Assembly them took a physical toll: Athletic and sturdily constructed, Jang had misplaced around 30 pounds since starting at Coupang in June 2019, Park acknowledged. She added that the fast weight loss triggered him to originate wrinkles on his face.
In February, the authorities of South Korea officially attributed Jang’s death to overwork. The final checklist into his death current that Jang’s physique bore the signs of excessive muscular breakdown. Coupang issued an apology and promised to strengthen working prerequisites, equivalent to growing employee scientific checkups.
In its emailed assertion, a Coupang spokesperson pointed to the actual fact that Jang’s death used to be the most reasonable possible one to be officially dominated work-linked in the company’s history. And it acknowledged its recent investments into warehouse automation “will improve effectivity and reduces workload for our workers.”
All of this may possibly possibly silent sound acquainted to other folks that prepare Amazon, the save the company’s drivers and fulfillment heart workers beget reported nearly the true identical complications which will most likely be dazzling now emerging at Coupang. Amazon too has faced criticism for a punishing tempo of work that leads to excessive charges of injury, the exercise of algorithms to surveil and fireplace workers, oppressive productivity requirements that deal with workers love robots, and a commerce mannequin that appears to depend on disposable labor.
Within the US, discontent around these prerequisites fueled a historical unionization pressure at Amazon’s fulfillment heart in Bessemer, Alabama earlier this Twelve months. Union organizer Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Division Retailer Union (RWDSU), talked in regards to the “unbearable” tempo in the company’s warehouses and explained: “That is in actual fact in regards to the future of work. Of us are managed by an algorithm. They’re disciplined by an app on their cell phone. And they’re fired by text message. Of us beget had ample.” In response, Amazon, which has a long history of union-busting activities including surveilling and intimidating workers, launched a monumental-scale anti-union blitz whereas denying allegations that its offer drivers had been forced to urinate in bottles. Amazon has since walked reduction its denial of these stories, nonetheless in a roundabout intention won the Bessemer vote.
In a letter to Amazon shareholders published rapidly after the unionization vote in early April, Jeff Bezos announced that the company may possibly perchance well be rolling out a recent “job rotation program” to deal with the difficulty of excessive damage charges. The program, wrote Bezos, will exercise “sophisticated algorithms to rotate workers amongst jobs that exercise utterly different muscle-tendon teams to decrease repetitive movement and support offer protection to workers from MSD dangers.” Nevertheless underlying this plot is a problematic peep of injuries as a mere effectivity dispute pretty than the warning signs of deeper dysfunction. And at bottom, the design appears love much less of a excessive solution for overwork than an extension of the totalizing and performance-obsessed micromanagement that created the difficulty in the first intention.
In an emailed assertion to MIT Abilities Review, Amazon spokesperson Max Gleber declined to give extra significant components on the program. “Our scanning route of is to tune stock movement, no longer other folks,” he acknowledged. “All of us know these are physical jobs nonetheless we discontinue all that we can to design determined the safety and health of our workers.”
The unionization pressure may possibly perchance beget failed, nonetheless it highlighted how recent worker protections are unable to contend with the future of work that Appelbaum spoke about. And the identical is correct in South Korea, the save Coupang has managed to navigate the blind spots in South Korean labor law to defend its workers on skittish contracts—and due to the this fact much less likely to prepare—whereas subjecting them to ever-intensifying workloads.
When I first started reporting on Coupang final summer time, in the starting save as an investigation into the company’s mishandling of a covid-19 outbreak at one among its warehouses, I was struck no longer easiest by how identical its labor complications had been to Amazon’s, nonetheless by how Coupang workers had immediately understood that their strive against used to be against no longer dazzling a misbehaving native employer, nonetheless the very idea of superfast offer itself.
Coupang has most ceaselessly repeated the identical line when faced with criticisms of its labor practices: that the company’s divulge employment mannequin enables it to give better benefits when put next with the leisure of the commerce. Nevertheless paying a slight bit extra for dehumanizing work does no longer abruptly design it any much less dehumanizing, and workers I spoke to acknowledged that this kind of alternatives would drop looking out significant growth. “The source of all these complications are offer time gash-off dates and Rocket Provide,” Dart Geon, the inclined warehouse worker, instructed me. “That is the save to launch of every thing.” That’s why the Coupang drivers’ union isn’t simply campaigning for incremental enhancements to working prerequisites or wages, nonetheless has known as for a rollback of the company’s razor-thin offer guarantees.
After he left Coupang, Dart founded an advocacy neighborhood for the company’s warehouse workers. He instructed me he’d felt a entire lot of kinship toward Amazon workers after realizing they had been suffering in the identical means. “It’d be nice to launch some collective action,” he instructed me. It used to be dazzling an offhand commentary, nonetheless it felt love an foremost perception: involving a single, universalized mannequin that is reshaping e-commerce around the enviornment may possibly perchance require some roughly international team spirit amongst workers.
An existential jam
Despite Coupang’s promises to deal with its have labor complications, the easier financial currents whereby it is positioned easiest deepened throughout the pandemic. Global e-commerce exploded due to the shop closures and social distancing, and the commerce is projected to checklist end to $5 trillion in sales worldwide by the halt of 2021.
In its IPO prospectus, Coupang acknowledged its core existential jam: pursuing “tempo and reliability”—the 2 pillars of its commerce mannequin—whereas controlling its labor funds, which beget grown fourteen-fold between 2014 and 2020. (Within the meantime, the company has yet to turn a profit with Rocket Provide.)
What would a extra labor rights-minded means to this balancing act entail? Can fleet offer co-exist with worker welfare? I fair no longer too long previously posed these inquiries to Jang Kwi-yeon, a labor researcher on the Labor Rights Learn Institute. When I spoke to her final Twelve months, she had when put next Coupang’s warehouses to the corrupt sweatshops in 1970s South Korea.
“I have the logistics map itself wishes to be overhauled,” she instructed me. “The staunch to leisure and the health of workers wishes to be residence as mounted preconditions, and then the algorithms may possibly perchance silent then be save to work to calculate how fleet deliveries may possibly perchance additionally be made.”
The potentialities of an e-commerce company whose total commerce hinges on being fleet willingly selecting to be slower are clearly end to nil. And even when Coupang changed its means, the promise of reach-fast offer has already replicated the identical dispute in each intention. To retain with Coupang, competitors love web big Naver and department store chain Shinsegae Group are promising ever-sooner deliveries that will with out a doubt intention a honest elevated burden on their workers. Better than a dozen offer drivers for utterly different operators beget died on the job in the previous Twelve months. Households and union officials beget attributed a range of these deaths to overwork, the same to Jang Deok-joon’s case.
Within the US, extra competitors for Amazon—Walmart, shall we stutter, has started offering identical-day offer—suggests that the identical memoir will play out. These companies beget changed expectations and hidden the true funds from shoppers, whereas many workers who’re faced with rising unemployment triggered by the pandemic can’t beget ample money to scrutinize out a extra humane place of work.
Some model of ethical big-fleet offer may possibly perchance exist, attained likely with better wages, stricter health protocols, and by hiring plenty extra workers. Nevertheless Coupang’s memoir—and the stories of its workers—suggests that this may possibly possibly be a essentially fallacious proposition. Within the halt, it is onerous to witness how sooner offer guarantees can’t be paid for without the an increasing form of punishing and dehumanizing labor of frontline workers. As the inclined driver instructed me: “it’s a mannequin whereby it’s very unlikely to no longer aggressively gash down labor funds.”
Max Kim is a contract journalist, author, and producer based in Seoul, South Korea.