This firm delivers packages quicker than Amazon, however staff pay the value

Early on the morning of October 12, 2020, 27-year-old Jang Deok-joon got here house after working his in a single day shift at South Korean e-commerce large Coupang and jumped into the bathe. He had labored on the firm’s warehouse within the southern metropolis of Daegu for slightly over a yr, hauling crates full of things able to be shipped to supply hubs. When he didn’t come out of the lavatory for over an hour and a half, his father opened the door to seek out him unconscious and curled in a ball within the bathtub, his arms tucked tightly into his chest. He was rushed to the hospital, however with no pulse and failing to breathe on his personal, docs pronounced him useless at 9:09 a.m. The coroner dominated that he had died from a coronary heart assault.

Jang’s story caught my eye as a result of he was the third Coupang employee to die that yr, including to rising concern concerning the nature of the corporate’s success. And Coupang has been astoundingly profitable: it has risen to develop into South Korea’s third-largest employer in only a few years, harnessing an enormous community of warehouses, 37,000 staff, a fleet of drivers, and a set of AI-driven instruments to take a commanding place in South Korea’s crowded ecommerce market. Coupang is in all places in South Korea: half of residents have downloaded its app, and its “Rocket Supply” service—the corporate claims 99.3% of orders are delivered inside 24 hours—has earned it a status for “out-Amazoning even Amazon.”

Coupang’s use of AI to shorten supply occasions is very hanging: its proprietary algorithms calculate all the pieces from essentially the most environment friendly method to stack packages in supply vans, to the exact route and order of deliveries for drivers. In warehouses, AI anticipates purchases and calculates transport deadlines for outbound packages. This enables Coupang to vow supply in lower than a day for tens of millions of things, from a 60-cent facemask to a $9,000 digicam. Such improvements are why Coupang confidently payments itself because the “way forward for ecommerce,” and had been the driving drive behind firm’s current launch on Nasdaq that valued the corporate at $84 billion—the largest US IPO by an Asian firm since Alibaba in 2014. 

However what does all this innovation and effectivity imply for the corporate’s staff?

That was the query I had in thoughts final summer season, earlier than Jang’s dying, after I met a number of of Coupang’s warehouse and supply staff. Like Jang, who had instructed his mom that staff had been handled like “disposable objects,” that they had all skilled the dehumanizing results of Coupang’s algorithmic improvements. Some talked a couple of bruising tempo of labor hitched to the expectations of superhuman supply occasions. Others mentioned it was tough to even go to the lavatory at work. In 2014, when Coupang started providing Rocket Supply, its on-demand supply service, it had promised steady careers with above-average advantages even to bottom-rung staff. However someplace alongside the best way, it appeared, the employees had been lowered to what South Korean labor journalist Kim Ha-young has known as the “legs and arms of synthetic intelligence.” 

It’s no coincidence that a lot of this criticism mirrored experiences of working situations at Amazon. Though Coupang was based in 2010 as a Groupon-like offers platform, it switched to Amazon’s vertically built-in success mannequin in 2014, pledging to develop into the “Amazon of Korea.” In doing so, it bumped into the very same issues with labor.

Demanding work, on demand

What makes Rocket Supply work is certainty—a promise that Coupang’s algorithms will decide precisely when a batch of deliveries wants to depart the warehouse to be able to make it to you on time. Within the firm’s warehouses, these supply deadlines come roughly each two hours. 

“I spotted after I began working there that the only real precedence was assembly Rocket Supply deadlines,” mentioned Go Geon, one former warehouse employee I spoke to. “We had been simply robots.” Go went on medical depart from his job at Coupang in Might 2020 after tearing his left hamstring whereas operating to satisfy a deadline. He has since been let go by the corporate.

In the course of the pandemic, the casualties of the obsession with hyperefficiency stacked up. From 2019 to 2020, work-related accidents and sicknesses at Coupang and its warehouses practically doubled to 982 incidents.

Like Amazon, Coupang has used a “unit-per-hour,” or UPH, metric to measure employee productiveness in actual time and preserve the grueling tempo in its warehouses. Though staff are formally given one hour of relaxation for each eight-hour shift—the legally mandated minimal break—one driver I met final September instructed me that most individuals merely labored by their breaks to remain on schedule. He’s not with the corporate. In an emailed assertion to MIT Expertise Evaluation, a Coupang spokesperson acknowledged that the corporate not tracks UPH at its warehouses. However one present employee I spoke to lately instructed me that some warehouse managers are nonetheless brazenly monitoring work price this manner. “They hardly ever use the time period ‘UPH’ anymore,” he mentioned. “However they’ll nonetheless hector you for being too sluggish, presumably based mostly on some type of concrete proof.”

In the course of the pandemic, from which Coupang has handsomely profited, the casualties of this obsession with hyperefficiency stacked up. From 2019 to 2020, work-related accidents and sicknesses at Coupang and its warehouses practically doubled to 982 incidents. Since Jang Deok-joon’s deadly coronary heart assault, three extra Coupang staff have died from what labor activists say was overwork (there have been no official rulings on their deaths). 

However regardless of the issues these deaths have raised, none of them have brought about a lot as a blip in Coupang’s operations. Quite the opposite, the corporate appears to thrive on how disposable its labor is. Though it employs its staff immediately slightly than utilizing subcontractors, the bulk are reportedly employed on a day-to-day foundation the evening earlier than through an app known as “Coupunch,” or on non permanent contracts that often final just a few months. This flexibility permits Coupang to match its labor prices to the ebb and circulation of enterprise and hold issues lean. 


However the fixed menace of being denied employment hangs over staff. For individuals who voice dissent, report a office harm, or fall in need of their productiveness necessities, Coupang is thought to withhold contract extensions, staff instructed me. 

In its assertion to MIT Expertise Evaluation, Coupang mentioned that the corporate “complies with the Labor Normal Act in each side together with hiring and termination,” and that “the speed of renewal for the contract employee is greater than 90 %.” Nevertheless, courts have dominated up to now that the corporate unfairly fired a employee who submitted a office harm declare. 

“They make it very clear as quickly as you’re employed that for those who trigger any sort of issues, you gained’t be getting a contract extension,” Jeon Woo-oak, a former warehouse employee, instructed me.

Jang’s dying exemplified how exploitative this association could be. As a day laborer who utilized for shifts each evening through Coupunch, he had been anxious about his precarious employment standing. However he had hoped to remain within the firm’s good graces and apply for everlasting employment, his mom, Park Mi-sook, instructed me. Within the months main as much as his dying, he had labored the 7 p.m. to four a.m. shift, along with frequent additional time, for as much as 59 hours over seven consecutive days, incomes minimal wage (the equal of about $7.60 per hour). “He could be fully worn out after the top of every deadline,” Park mentioned. 

In 2019, as Coupang ramped up its in a single day supply service that provided a 7 a.m. supply assure for orders made the earlier night, the variety of deadlines throughout a typical evening shift within the Daegu warehouse elevated from round three to seven, in line with one employee. Assembly them took a bodily toll: Athletic and sturdily constructed, Jang had misplaced round 30 kilos since beginning at Coupang in June 2019, Park mentioned. She added that the speedy weight reduction brought about him to develop wrinkles on his face.

In February, the federal government of South Korea formally attributed Jang’s dying to overwork. The ultimate report into his dying famous that Jang’s physique bore the indicators of extreme muscular breakdown. Coupang issued an apology and promised to enhance working situations, resembling increasing worker medical checkups.

In its emailed assertion, a Coupang spokesperson pointed to the truth that Jang’s dying was the one one to be formally dominated work-related within the firm’s historical past. And it mentioned its current investments into warehouse automation “will increase effectivity and reduces workload for our staff.”

Worldwide worries

All of this could sound acquainted to those that observe Amazon, the place the corporate’s drivers and success heart staff have reported nearly the very same issues which are simply now rising at Coupang. Amazon too has confronted criticism for a punishing tempo of labor that results in excessive charges of harm, the usage of algorithms to surveil and fireplace staff, oppressive productiveness necessities that deal with staff like robots, and a enterprise mannequin that appears to depend upon disposable labor. 

In the US, discontent round these situations fueled a historic unionization drive at Amazon’s success heart in Bessemer, Alabama earlier this yr. Union organizer Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Division Retailer Union (RWDSU), talked concerning the “insufferable” tempo within the firm’s warehouses and defined: “That is actually about the way forward for work. Individuals are managed by an algorithm. They’re disciplined by an app on their telephone. They usually’re fired by textual content message. Individuals have had sufficient.” In response, Amazon, which has a protracted historical past of union-busting actions together with surveilling and intimidating staff, launched a large-scale anti-union blitz whereas denying allegations that its supply drivers had been pressured to urinate in bottles. Amazon has since walked again its denial of those experiences, however in the end gained the Bessemer vote. 

In a letter to Amazon shareholders printed shortly after the unionization vote in early April, Jeff Bezos introduced that the corporate could be rolling out a brand new “job rotation program” to deal with the problem of excessive harm charges. This system, wrote Bezos, will use “subtle algorithms to rotate workers amongst jobs that use totally different muscle-tendon teams to lower repetitive movement and assist shield workers from MSD dangers.” However underlying this scheme is a problematic view of accidents as a mere effectivity downside slightly than the warning indicators of deeper dysfunction. And at backside, the plan looks as if much less of a critical resolution for overwork than an extension of the totalizing and performance-obsessed micromanagement that created the issue within the first place. 

In an emailed assertion to MIT Expertise Evaluation, Amazon spokesperson Max Gleber declined to supply further particulars on this system. “Our scanning course of is to trace stock motion, not folks,” he mentioned. “We all know these are bodily jobs however we do all that we will to make sure the protection and well being of our workers.”


The unionization drive might have failed, nevertheless it highlighted how present employee protections are unable to deal with the way forward for work that Appelbaum spoke about. And the identical is true in South Korea, the place Coupang has managed to navigate the blind spots in South Korean labor legislation to maintain its staff on insecure contracts—and due to this fact much less prone to set up—whereas subjecting them to ever-intensifying workloads.

Once I first started reporting on Coupang final summer season, initially as an investigation into the corporate’s mishandling of a covid-19 outbreak at one in all its warehouses, I used to be struck not solely by how comparable its labor points had been to Amazon’s, however by how Coupang staff had instantly understood that their combat was in opposition to not only a misbehaving native employer, however the very thought of superfast supply itself. 

Coupang has usually repeated the identical line when confronted with criticisms of its labor practices: that the corporate’s direct employment mannequin permits it to supply higher advantages in comparison with the remainder of the business. However paying slightly extra for dehumanizing work doesn’t all of a sudden make it any much less dehumanizing, and staff I spoke to mentioned that any such options would fall in need of significant progress. “The supply of all these issues are supply deadlines and Rocket Supply,” Go Geon, the previous warehouse employee, instructed me. “That’s the place to begin of all the pieces.” That’s why the Coupang drivers’ union isn’t merely campaigning for incremental enhancements to working situations or wages, however has known as for a rollback  of the corporate’s razor-thin supply ensures.

After he left Coupang, Go based an advocacy group for the corporate’s  warehouse staff. He instructed me he’d felt a way of kinship towards Amazon staff after realizing they had been struggling in the identical approach. “It might be good to launch some collective motion,” he instructed me. It was simply an offhand comment, nevertheless it felt like an important perception: difficult a single, universalized mannequin that’s reshaping e-commerce all over the world would possibly require some sort of worldwide solidarity amongst staff.

An existential dilemma

Regardless of Coupang’s guarantees to deal with its personal labor points, the bigger financial currents by which it’s positioned solely deepened through the pandemic. International e-commerce exploded because of retailer closures and social distancing, and the business is projected to report near $5 trillion in gross sales worldwide by the top of 2021. 

In its IPO prospectus, Coupang acknowledged its core existential dilemma: pursuing “pace and reliability”—the 2 pillars of its enterprise mannequin—whereas controlling its labor prices, which have grown fourteen-fold between 2014 and 2020. (In the meantime, the corporate has but to show a revenue with Rocket Supply.)

What would a extra labor rights-minded method to this balancing act entail? Can quick supply co-exist with employee welfare? I lately posed these inquiries to Jang Kwi-yeon, a labor researcher on the Labor Rights Analysis Institute. Once I spoke to her final yr, she had in contrast Coupang’s warehouses to the notorious sweatshops in 1970s South Korea. 

“I believe the logistics system itself needs to be overhauled,” she instructed me. “The proper to relaxation and the well being of staff needs to be set as fastened preconditions, after which the algorithms ought to then be put to work to calculate how briskly deliveries could be made.” 

The probabilities of an e-commerce firm whose total enterprise hinges on being quick willingly selecting to be slower are after all near nil. And even when Coupang modified its method, the promise of near-instant supply has already replicated the identical downside in all places. To maintain up with Coupang, opponents like web large Naver and division retailer chain Shinsegae Group are promising ever-faster deliveries that may undoubtedly place a good larger burden on their staff. Greater than a dozen supply drivers for different operators have died on the job up to now yr. Households and union officers have attributed many of those deaths to overwork, just like Jang Deok-joon’s case. 

“The proper to relaxation and the well being of staff needs to be set as fastened preconditions, after which the algorithms ought to then be put to work to calculate how briskly deliveries could be made.”

Jang Kwi-yeon, Labor Rights Analysis Institute

Within the US, extra competitors for Amazon—Walmart, for instance, has began providing same-day supply—means that the identical story will play out. These corporations have modified expectations and hidden the actual prices from shoppers, whereas many staff who’re confronted with rising unemployment attributable to the pandemic can’t afford to hunt out a extra humane office.

Some model of moral super-fast supply might exist, attained maybe with higher wages, stricter well being protocols, and by hiring much more staff. However Coupang’s story—and the tales of its staff—means that this can be a essentially flawed proposition. Ultimately, it’s exhausting to see how quicker supply ensures can’t be paid for with out the more and more punishing and dehumanizing labor of frontline staff. As the previous driver instructed me: “it’s a mannequin by which it’s inconceivable to not aggressively slash down labor prices.” 

Max Kim is a contract journalist, author, and producer based mostly in Seoul, South Korea.

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