Jang’s death exemplified how exploitative this arrangement can be. As a day laborer who applied for shifts every night via Coupunch, he had been anxious about his precarious employment status. But he had hoped to stay in the company’s good graces and apply for permanent employment, his mother, Park Mi-sook, told me. In the months leading up to his death, he had worked the 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, in addition to frequent overtime, for up to 59 hours over seven consecutive days, earning minimum wage (the equivalent of about $7.60 per hour). “He would be completely wiped out after the end of each deadline,” Park said.
In 2019, as Coupang ramped up its overnight delivery service that offered a 7 a.m. delivery guarantee for orders made the previous evening, the number of deadlines during a typical night shift in the Daegu warehouse increased from around three to seven, according to one worker. Meeting them took a physical toll: Athletic and sturdily built, Jang had lost around 30 pounds since starting at Coupang in June 2019, Park said. She added that the rapid weight loss caused him to develop wrinkles on his face.
In February, the government of South Korea officially attributed Jang’s death to overwork. The final report into his death noted that Jang’s body bore the signs of severe muscular breakdown. Coupang issued an apology and promised to improve working conditions, such as expanding employee medical checkups.
In its emailed statement, a Coupang spokesperson pointed to the fact that Jang’s death was the only one to be officially ruled work-related in the company’s history. And it said its recent investments into warehouse automation “increases efficiency and decreases workload for our workers.”
All of this should sound familiar to those who follow Amazon, where the company’s drivers and fulfillment center workers have reported almost the exact same problems that are just now emerging at Coupang. Amazon too has faced criticism for a punishing pace of work that leads to high rates of injury, the use of algorithms to surveil and fire workers, oppressive productivity requirements that treat workers like robots, and a business model that seems to depend on disposable labor.
In the United States, discontent around these conditions fueled a historic unionization drive at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama earlier this year. Union organizer Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), talked about the “unbearable” pace in the company’s warehouses and explained: “This is really about the future of work. People are managed by an algorithm. They’re disciplined by an app on their phone. And they’re fired by text message. People have had enough.” In response, Amazon, which has a long history of union-busting activities including surveilling and intimidating workers, launched a large-scale anti-union blitz while denying allegations that its delivery drivers were forced to urinate in bottles. Amazon has since walked back its denial of these reports, but ultimately won the Bessemer vote.