Early on the morning of October 12, 2020, 27-year-old Jang Deok-joon came home after working his overnight shift at South Korean e-commerce giantCoupang and jumped into the shower. He had worked at the company’swarehouse in the southern city ofDaegufor a little over a year, hauling crates full of items ready to be shipped to delivery hubs. When he didn’t come out of the bathroom for over an hour and a half, his father opened the door to find him unconscious and curled in a ball in the bathtub, his arms tucked tightly into his chest. He was rushed to the hospital, but with no pulse and failing to breathe on his own, doctors pronounced him dead at 9:09 a.m. The coroner ruled that he had died from a heart attack.

Jang’s story caught my eye because he was the third Coupang worker to die that year, adding to growing concern about the nature of the company’s success. And Coupang has been astoundingly successful: it has risen to become South Korea’s third-largest employer in just a few years, harnessing a vast network of warehouses, 37,000 workers, a fleet of drivers, and a suite of AI-driven tools to take a commanding position in South Korea’s crowded ecommerce market. Coupang is everywhere in South Korea: half of residents have downloaded its app, and its “Rocket Delivery” 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 use of AI to shorten delivery times is especially striking: its proprietary algorithms calculate everything from the most efficient way to stack packages in delivery trucks, to the precise route and order of deliveries for drivers. Inwarehouses,AI anticipates purchases and calculates shipping deadlines for outbound packages. This allows Coupang to promise delivery in less than a day for millions of items, from a 60-cent facemask to a $9,000 camera. Such innovations are why Coupang confidently bills itself as the “future of ecommerce,” and were the driving force behind company’s recent launch on Nasdaq that valued the company at $84 billion—the biggest US IPO by an Asian company since Alibaba in 2014. 

But what does all this innovation and efficiency mean for the company’s workers?

That was the question I had in mind last summer, before Jang’s death, when I met several of Coupang’s warehouse and delivery workers. Like Jang, who had told his mother that workers were treated like “disposable objects,” they had all experienced the dehumanizing effects of Coupang’s algorithmic innovations. Some talked about a bruising pace of work hitched to the expectations of superhuman delivery times. Others said it was difficult to even go to the bathroom at work. In 2014, when Coupang began offering Rocket Delivery, its on-demand delivery service, it had promised stable careers with above-average benefits even to bottom-rung workers. But somewhere along the way, it seemed, the workers had been reduced to what South Korean labor journalist Kim Ha-young has called the “arms and legs of artificial intelligence.” 

It is no coincidence that much of this criticism mirrored reports of working conditions at Amazon. Although Coupang was founded in 2010 as a Groupon-like deals platform, it switched to Amazon’s vertically integrated fulfillment model in 2014, pledging to become the “Amazon of Korea.” In doing so, it ran into the exact same problems with labor.

Demanding work, on demand

What makes Rocket Delivery work is certainty—a promise that Coupang’s algorithms will determine exactly when a batch of deliveries needs to leave the warehouse in order to make it to you on time. In the company’s warehouses, these delivery deadlines come approximately every two hours. 

“I realized when I started working there that the sole priority was meeting Rocket Delivery deadlines,” said Go Geon, one former warehouse worker I spoke to. “We were just robots.” Go went on medical leave from his job at Coupang in May 2020 after tearing his left hamstring while running to meet a deadline. He has since been let go by the company.

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By: Max S. Kim
Title: This company delivers packages faster than Amazon, but workers pay the price
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2021/06/09/1025884/coupang-amazon-labor-costs-worker-death/
Published Date: Wed, 09 Jun 2021 09:00:00 +0000

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