Early on the morning of October 12, 2020, 27-one year-former Jang Deok-joon came dwelling after working his in a single day shift at South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang and jumped into the shower. He had worked on the company’s warehouse within the southern city of Daegu for a minute bit over a one year, hauling crates chunky of items ready to be shipped to shipping hubs. When he didn’t near out of the leisure room for over an hour and a half of, his father opened the door to derive him unconscious and curled in a ball within the bathtub, his palms tucked tightly into his chest. He used to be rushed to the sanatorium, however with no pulse and failing to breathe on his own, doctors pronounced him dumb at 9: 09 a.m. The coroner dominated that he had died from a heart attack.

Jang’s story caught my eye because he used to be the third Coupang worker to die that one year, adding to rising project about the character of the company’s success. And Coupang has been astoundingly a hit: it has risen to develop to be South Korea’s third-biggest employer in proper about a years, harnessing a mountainous network of warehouses, 37,000 workers, a rapidly of drivers, and a suite of AI-driven tools to consume a commanding web site in South Korea’s crowded ecommerce market. Coupang is all over in South Korea: half of of residents absorb downloaded its app, and its “Rocket Offer” service—the company claims 99.3% of orders are delivered within 24 hours—has earned it a reputation for “out-Amazoning even Amazon.”

Coupang’s voice of AI to shorten shipping times is especially striking: its proprietary algorithms calculate every thing from basically the most exciting technique to stack applications in shipping trucks, to the actual route and disclose of deliveries for drivers. In warehouses, AI anticipates purchases and calculates shipping time prick-off dates for outbound applications. This permits Coupang to promise shipping in no longer as a lot as a day for thousands and thousands of items, from a 60-cent facemask to a $9,000 digicam. Such improvements are why Coupang confidently bills itself because the “future of ecommerce,” and absorb been the utilizing pressure within the motivate of company’s latest initiating on Nasdaq that valued the company at $84 billion—the biggest US IPO by an Asian company since Alibaba in 2014. 

However what does all this innovation and effectivity mean for the company’s workers?

That used to be the query I had in mind closing summer season, before Jang’s loss of life, after I met several of Coupang’s warehouse and shipping workers. Treasure Jang, who had told his mother that workers absorb been handled like “disposable objects,” they had all experienced the dehumanizing results of Coupang’s algorithmic improvements. Some talked about a bruising chase of work hitched to the expectations of superhuman shipping times. Others talked about it used to be complicated to even dawdle to the leisure room at work. In 2014, when Coupang began offering Rocket Offer, its on-query shipping service, it had promised procure careers with above-average advantages even to backside-rung workers. However somewhere along the procedure, it appeared, the workers had been lowered to what South Korean labor journalist Kim Ha-young has called the “palms and legs of synthetic intelligence.” 

It’s miles now not any longer any coincidence that principal of this criticism mirrored experiences of working prerequisites at Amazon. Although Coupang used to be founded in 2010 as a Groupon-like deals platform, it switched to Amazon’s vertically constructed-in fulfillment model in 2014, pledging to develop to be the “Amazon of Korea.” In doing so, it without observe met the exact identical complications with labor.

Tense work, on query

What makes Rocket Offer work is definite bet—a promise that Coupang’s algorithms will choose precisely when a batch of deliveries needs to dawdle away the warehouse in disclose to keep it to you on time. Within the company’s warehouses, these shipping time prick-off dates near approximately every two hours. 

“I realized after I began working there that the sole priority used to be meeting Rocket Offer time prick-off dates,” talked about Race Geon, one feeble warehouse worker I spoke to. “We absorb been proper robots.” Race went on medical dawdle away from his job at Coupang in Would possibly per chance presumably additionally 2020 after tearing his left hamstring while running to satisfy a deadline. He has since been let dawdle by the company.

All the procedure thru the pandemic, the casualties of the obsession with hyperefficiency stacked up. From 2019 to 2020, work-linked accidents and ailments at Coupang and its warehouses virtually doubled to 982 incidents.

Treasure Amazon, Coupang has ragged a “unit-per-hour,” or UPH, metric to measure worker productivity in exact time and retain the grueling chase in its warehouses. Although workers are formally given one hour of leisure for every eight-hour shift—the legally mandated minimum shatter—one driver I met closing September told me that most folk merely worked thru their breaks to quit on schedule. He’s now not any longer any longer with the company. In an emailed statement to MIT Technology Overview, a Coupang spokesperson talked about that the company no longer tracks UPH at its warehouses. However one latest worker I spoke to honest no longer too prolonged within the past told me that some warehouse managers are aloof brazenly monitoring work rate this procedure. “They infrequently ever voice the timeframe ‘UPH’ anymore,” he talked about. “However they’ll aloof hector you for being too gradual, presumably in step with some invent of concrete proof.”

All the procedure thru the pandemic, from which Coupang has handsomely profited, the casualties of this obsession with hyperefficiency stacked up. From 2019 to 2020, work-linked accidents and ailments at Coupang and its warehouses virtually doubled to 982 incidents. Since Jang Deok-joon’s lethal heart attack, three more Coupang workers absorb died from what labor activists tell used to be overwork (there absorb been no unswerving rulings on their deaths). 

However irrespective of the considerations these deaths absorb raised, none of them absorb brought about so principal as a blip in Coupang’s operations. On the contrary, the company appears to be like to thrive on how disposable its labor is. Although it employs its workers directly as opposed to the utilization of subcontractors, the majority are reportedly hired on a day-to-day basis the evening before by an app called “Coupunch,” or on non eternal contracts that on the total closing about a months. This pliability permits Coupang to envision its labor prices to the ebb and drift of business and retain things lean. 


However the constant threat of being denied employment hangs over workers. Ought to you divulge dissent, document a web site of business hurt, or topple fast of their productivity requirements, Coupang is identified to retain contract extensions, workers told me. 

In its statement to MIT Technology Overview, Coupang talked about that the company “complies with the Labor Customary Act in every aspect at the side of hiring and termination,” and that “the rate of renewal for the contract worker is more than 90 percent.” Nonetheless, courts absorb dominated within the previous that the company unfairly fired a worker who submitted a web site of business hurt claim. 

“They keep it very clear as rapidly as you’re hired that if you happen to motive to any extent additional or much less complications, you received’t be getting a contract extension,” Jeon Woo-oak, a feeble warehouse worker, told me.

Jang’s loss of life exemplified how exploitative this affiliation would possibly possibly also be. As a day laborer who applied for shifts every evening by Coupunch, he had been anxious about his precarious employment web site. However he had hoped to quit within the company’s loyal graces and observe for eternal employment, his mother, Park Mi-sook, told me. Within the months main as a lot as his loss of life, he had worked the 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, as well to frequent overtime, for as a lot as 59 hours over seven consecutive days, earning minimum wage (the identical of about $7.60 per hour). “He would be entirely wiped out after the terminate of every deadline,” Park talked about. 

In 2019, as Coupang ramped up its in a single day shipping service that equipped a 7 a.m. shipping guarantee for orders made the outdated evening, the sequence of time prick-off dates within the route of a normal evening shift within the Daegu warehouse elevated from around three to seven, in step with one worker. Assembly them took a physical toll: Athletic and sturdily constructed, Jang had misplaced around 30 kilos since starting at Coupang in June 2019, Park talked about. She added that the like a flash weight reduction brought about him to fetch wrinkles on his face.

In February, the govtof South Korea formally attributed Jang’s loss of life to overwork. The closing document into his loss of life renowned that Jang’s body bore the indicators of severe muscular breakdown. Coupang issued an apology and promised to red meat up working prerequisites, reminiscent of expanding employee medical checkups.

In its emailed statement, a Coupang spokesperson pointed to the very fact that Jang’s loss of life used to be the one one to be formally dominated work-linked within the company’s historic previous. And it talked about its latest investments into warehouse automation “will enhance effectivity and decreases workload for our workers.”

Worldwide worries

All of this will per chance presumably per chance additionally merely aloof sound familiar to these who observe Amazon, the build the company’s drivers and fulfillment center workers absorb reported virtually the exact identical complications that are proper now rising at Coupang. Amazon too has confronted criticism for a punishing chase of work that leads to excessive charges of hurt, the voice of algorithms to surveil and fire workers, oppressive productivity requirements that take care of workers like robots, and a business model that appears to be like to rely on disposable labor. 

Within the US, discontent around these prerequisites fueled a historic unionization pressure at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama earlier this one year. Union organizer Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Division Retailer Union (RWDSU), talked about the “unbearable” chase within the company’s warehouses and explained: “That is de facto about the future of work. Of us are managed by an algorithm. They’re disciplined by an app on their phone. And they also’re fired by text message. Of us absorb had sufficient.” In response, Amazon, which has a prolonged historic previous of union-busting actions at the side of surveilling and intimidating workers, launched an glorious-scale anti-union blitz while denying allegations that its shipping drivers absorb been pressured to urinate in bottles. Amazon has since walked motivate its denial of these experiences, however one procedure or the opposite received the Bessemer vote. 

In a letter to Amazon shareholders printed quickly after the unionization vote in early April, Jeff Bezos presented that the company would be rolling out a novel “job rotation program” to handle the build of excessive hurt charges. The program, wrote Bezos, will voice “sophisticated algorithms to rotate workers among jobs that voice numerous muscle-tendon groups to diminish repetitive circulate and again offer protection to workers from MSD dangers.” However underlying this plan is a problematic glimpse of accidents as a mere effectivity declare as opposed to the warning indicators of deeper dysfunction. And at backside, the notion appears to be like like much less of a serious solution for overwork than an extension of the totalizing and efficiency-obsessed micromanagement that created the declare within the fundamental web site. 

In an emailed statement to MIT Technology Overview, Amazon spokesperson Max Gleber declined to offer additional small print on this contrivance. “Our scanning route of is to trace stock circulate, no longer folk,” he talked about. “Each person knows these are physical jobs however we carry out all that we are succesful of to be clear the protection and health of our workers.”


The unionization pressure would possibly possibly presumably per chance additionally merely absorb failed, however it highlighted how latest worker protections are unable to take care of the future of work that Appelbaum spoke about. And the identical is valid in South Korea, the build Coupang has managed to navigate the blind spots in South Korean labor law to retain its workers on alarmed contracts—and therefore much less more doubtless to manage—while subjecting them to ever-intensifying workloads.

When I first began reporting on Coupang closing summer season, first of all as an investigation into the company’s mishandling of a covid-19 outbreak at one among its warehouses, I was struck no longer only by how identical its labor considerations absorb been to Amazon’s, however by how Coupang workers had directly understood that their fight used to be in opposition to no longer proper a misbehaving local employer, however the very knowing of superfast shipping itself. 

Coupang has on the total repeated the identical line when confronted with criticisms of its labor practices: that the company’s declare employment model permits it to offer better advantages when in contrast with the leisure of the alternate. However paying a minute bit more for dehumanizing work would now not without observe keep it any much less dehumanizing, and workers I spoke to talked about that this sort of alternatives would topple fast of meaningful development. “The source of all these complications are shipping time prick-off dates and Rocket Offer,” Race Geon, the feeble warehouse worker, told me. “That’s the initiating line of every thing.” That’s why the Coupang drivers’ union isn’t merely campaigning for incremental improvements to working prerequisites or wages, however has called for a rollback  of the company’s razor-skinny shipping guarantees.

After he left Coupang, Race founded an advocacy team for the company’s  warehouse workers. He told me he’d felt a kind of kinship toward Amazon workers after realizing they absorb been suffering within the identical procedure. “It would possibly possibly presumably be nice to begin some collective circulate,” he told me. It used to be proper an offhand observation, however it felt like a important insight: tense a single, universalized model that is reshaping e-commerce world wide would possibly possibly presumably per chance additionally require some more or much less world team spirit among workers.

An existential scrape

Despite Coupang’s promises to handle its own labor considerations, the elevated economic currents wherein it is placed only deepened within the route of the pandemic. World e-commerce exploded thanks to store closures and social distancing, and the alternate is projected to document shut to $5 trillion in gross sales worldwide by the terminate of 2021. 

In its IPO prospectus, Coupang acknowledged its core existential scrape: pursuing “bustle and reliability”—the two pillars of its business model—while controlling its labor prices, which absorb grown fourteen-fold between 2014 and 2020. (Meanwhile, the company has but to turn a profit with Rocket Offer.)

What would a more labor rights-minded means to this balancing act entail? Can like a flash shipping co-exist with worker welfare? I honest no longer too prolonged within the past posed these inquiries to Jang Kwi-yeon, a labor researcher on the Labor Rights Research Institute. When I spoke to her closing one year, she had when in contrast Coupang’s warehouses to the unpleasant sweatshops in 1970s South Korea. 

“I concentrate on the logistics system itself must be overhauled,” she told me. “The loyal to leisure and the health of workers must be space as mounted preconditions, and then the algorithms would possibly possibly presumably per chance additionally merely aloof then be put to work to calculate how like a flash deliveries would possibly possibly also be made.” 

The possibilities of an e-commerce company whose complete business hinges on being like a flash willingly selecting to be slower are pointless to tell shut to nil. And despite the indisputable fact that Coupang changed its means, the promise of near-quick shipping has already replicated the identical declare all over. To retain with Coupang, opponents like web giant Naver and department store chain Shinsegae Community are promising ever-sooner deliveries that will definitely web site an even better burden on their workers. Extra than a dozen shipping drivers for numerous operators absorb died on the job within the previous one year. Families and union officials absorb attributed a form of these deaths to overwork, corresponding to Jang Deok-joon’s case. 

“The loyal to leisure and the health of workers must be space as mounted preconditions, and then the algorithms would possibly possibly presumably per chance additionally merely aloof then be put to work to calculate how like a flash deliveries would possibly possibly also be made.”

Jang Kwi-yeon, Labor Rights Research Institute

Within the US, more opponents for Amazon—Walmart, as an instance, has began offering identical-day shipping—means that the identical story will play out. These companies absorb changed expectations and hidden the actual prices from patrons, while many workers who’re confronted with rising unemployment brought about by the pandemic can’t derive the money for to see out a more humane web site of business.

Some version of ethical super-like a flash shipping would possibly possibly presumably per chance additionally merely exist, attained more than doubtless with better wages, stricter health protocols, and by hiring loads more workers. However Coupang’s story—and the tales of its workers—means that this will per chance presumably be a basically homely proposition. Within the terminate, it is laborious to gaze how sooner shipping guarantees can no longer be paid for without the more and more punishing and dehumanizing labor of frontline workers. Because the feeble driver told me: “it’s a model wherein it’s very unlikely no longer to aggressively crop down labor prices.” 

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

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