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Foreign Correspondent



Dead on Arrival

29 mins 37 secs






ABC Ultimo Centre

700 Harris Street Ultimo

NSW 2007 Australia


GPO Box 9994


NSW 2001 Australia

Phone: 61 419 231 533









We’re all relying on home deliveries to get us through the pandemic, but do we ever spare a thought for the workers who bring them to us?

In South Korea, the welfare of delivery workers has become a major issue. Twenty-one delivery workers have died since the start of the pandemic, and many say it is caused by relentless work pressures and long hours.

Lee Seong Wook, 44, is a delivery driver. He works six days a week from early in the morning until late at night and rarely sees his children.

"I'd be lying if I said it isn't tough for me. But it’s a matter of survival. My children won't eat if I don't earn."

Lee’s colleague, 47-year-old driver Im Gwang Soo, recently suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and fell into a coma. His life is hanging by a thread. Before his collapse, Im Gwang Soo had been working over 90 hours a week.

As companies compete with each other to offer faster delivery times, distribution workers and drivers have borne the brunt, putting in longer and longer hours.

The ABC’s South Korea correspondent Carrington Clarke goes on the road with the drivers and hears stories of their struggles as they race against the clock to deliver more packages than ever before.

He rides with 61-year-old driver Huh Wonjea, the son of an activist and fighter in the Korean Independence Movement. Mr Huh says South Koreans worked hard to rebuild their country after the war, but not everyone is reaping the rewards.

"The whole country’s been developing, but still in terms of the fair distribution of the assets or human rights ... not really fairly developed yet."

Lee Seong Wook is a branch leader of the delivery workers’ union. He’s determined that his generation will be the one to force change.

"If our generation can't change it, it’ll be passed down to the next generation and then what we sacrifice for our children would be meaningless."

It’s not just the drivers who are suffering. Those working in the distribution centres are also being pushed to their limits and beyond.

27-year-old Jang Deok-joon died of a heart attack. He’d been working long hours in the "fulfillment centre" of e-commerce company Coupang, described as the "Amazon" of South Korea. The government ruled it was "death by overwork".

"These really clever people used their brains only to work out how to squeeze as much blood from the workers as possible within the boundaries of the law," says Deokjoon’s mother.

In response to union pressure, some companies have introduced restrictions on delivering parcels after 9pm. But many drivers still have parcels left. If they don’t deliver them, their workload the following day will be even greater, so they keep working. For any food items they deliver after the 9pm cutoff, they’ll pay late fees. They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Dead on Arrival is a timely and cautionary tale of what happens when workers are pushed to the limit in the name of consumer convenience and company profits.

"If consumers don’t start thinking about it there will be other victims. Do you really think it’s okay to turn a blind eye or force someone to be sacrificed for your convenience?" asks Deokjoon’s mother.


Night. Incheon streets






Super: Incheaon, South Korea



Huh gets in to delivery truck

HUH: 4:25 is the time that I get into my truck. Bit sleepy but I turn on my radio, usually, so I try to boost up myself by listening to all that old goodies like this. And I try myself to be bit, you know, cheerful and then bit fresh, so I can enjoy my whole day, in fact.


Huh listens to radio in truck

This is national anthem, though. The starting of the day. This is Korean national anthem.


Drone shot. Truck on empty street

RADIO: "God protect and preserve our nation!"

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: 61-year-old delivery driver


Huh driving

Huh Won-Jae is a subcontractor with the Korean Postal Service. He works an average of 14 hours a day, or 70 hours a week.


Huh drives into Korean Postal Service warehouse

RADIO: "Great Korean people stay true to the great Korean way!"



CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: His shift begins at the regional distribution centre. There are thousands of parcels here waiting to be sorted, not by warehouse staff but by the drivers themselves.


Carrington to camera in warehouse. Super:
Carrington Clarke

This is one of the major complaints of these delivery drivers. They spend hours at the beginning of their shift sorting and then loading these packages onto their truck. And they say they’re not paid for those hours.



HUH: Our job is deliver the stuff, that’s our job.


Huh interview

It’s clearly stated in our contract. But before that we have to spend like four hours every day before we begin our job, without payment.


Huh sorts parcels

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Drivers are only paid when they deliver an item, around $1 to $1.50 per parcel. The boom in online shopping due to COVID-19 means drivers are spending even longer sorting packages, delaying when they can start their deliveries. Since the pandemic began, 21 delivery workers have died. Unions say, it’s from overwork. 


Workers sort parcels

HUH: It’s not just car accident, like that., they just collapsed during the work.


Huh interview

This is not right. This is not right. They claim that the government successfully managed the defence of this pandemic situation, which might be true. Then, who was the one who was sacrificed to support them? We are the one. We are the ones who are sacrificed to support the system.





Drone shots city high rise

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: South Korea has the longest working hours in the developed world.


City GVs

Hard work transformed this country from a war-torn Japanese colony into the world’s tenth-largest economy in just a few generations. Leaders promised the people that their sacrifices would pay off. Their children would reap the rewards. But many Koreans say they’re still paying the cost.


Delivery workers protest rally

Death caused by overwork is so common, there’s a word for it. Kwarosa.

UNION LEADER: "Comrades! I’m glad to be here. I’ll say hello to you by shouting fight! Fight!"



CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Delivery workers stage a rally in downtown Seoul. In January this year, logistics companies agreed to hire new staff to sort parcels, to reduce working hours, and to stop deliveries after 9pm. Six months on, unions say the promises have not been honoured.



UNION LEADER: "6500 hard-working members of the Delivery Workers’ Union are gathered here from across the country. Why are we here? It’s for the agreement. The promised date has already passed."





CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: The protest comes just days after yet another driver collapsed. On June 13th, a 48-year-old father of two named Im Gwang Soo suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and fell into a coma.



UNION LEADER: "Apparently, he worked over 90 hours a week, which is unbelievable. Does it even make sense?"


Lee at protest rally

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Lee Seong Wook worked side-by-side with Gwang Soo. He knows how easily it could’ve been him.


Delivery vans

LEE: The conveyor belt was broken again, making me waste an hour.


Lee driving

Only the other day he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, it’s tough, isn’t it? Come on, we can do it!” But he collapsed first. It wasn’t because he was weak. But with COVID and a surge in the volume of items we’re leaving even later for deliveries, and drivers have no choice but to deliver through the night, until dawn.


Lee interview

Any items left in here just get carried forward and as they pile up, drivers get desperate. The vicious cycle repeats itself and you end up with cases like Mr Im Gwang Soo.


Drone shots over residential areas

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Like Gwang Soo, Seong Wook is in his 40s with two kids and works around 90 hours a week. His workload means he rarely sees his children.


Lee making deliveries

LEE: Well, this is my first house in the area.




CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: After sorting packages all morning, it’s afternoon before he can make his first delivery.

LEE: After seven hours, I’ve finally arrived at my first house. Welcome to my first house!






LEE: "Hello? Delivery man."
WOMAN: "Is it for us?"
LEE: "Don’t come down! Please, don’t come down."
WOMAN: "It looks heavy."



LEE:  "Good bye!"





Evening. Lee back in truck driving

LEE: Let’s go! Time now is… what time is it now? It’s ten to nine. Let’s go.



CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Just before 9pm, after 14 hours on the job, Seong Wook gets an automated message from the company.


Lee continues deliveries into night

LEE: Ah, bloody hell! Because of the deaths from overwork, the company banned making deliveries after 9pm. But our current workload can’t accommodate the ban. Knowing that, the company just sends this message to cover itself. So what now? I still have 66 undelivered items. They include food items. Am I meant to go home without delivering them?



CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Seong Wook keeps working. It’ll take at least another hour to finish. For the fresh food he delivers after 9pm, he’ll pay penalties.



LEE: After 9pm, the company’s computer system shuts down. Deliveries I made after that will be marked as ‘delivered’ tomorrow.



Then, the company will charge us a late fee, which is the price of the item.



If this food item is 50,000 won, we’ll be charged 50,000 won.



CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: That’s a fine of roughly $60, for an item he’s paid less than $1 to deliver.



LEE: I’ll kick the bucket myself at this rate.


Lee sitting by road, smoking

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Seong Wook finally wraps up around 11pm. For a 16-hour day, he’s earned around $180. That’s before he’s paid tax, his petrol or phone bills, or any penalties for late deliveries.

LEE: I'd be lying if I said it isn't tough for me.


Lee interview. Lee shows photos of daughters

But it’s a matter of survival. My children won't eat if I don't earn. So I endure the hardship, endure not seeing them and work hard to earn money. Just like our fathers did. They’re always on my mind. Running towards me.



MOTHER: These things were already happening in society, but before we lost our son, they were never our problems.



They were other people’s problems. Like gazing at a mountain from afar, we thought, 'Oh, someone died today.'




Photos. Jang

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: 27-year-old Jang Deok-joon returned home from a night shift at 6am on October 12th, 2020. He went to the bathroom to shower. When he hadn’t emerged an hour later,


Deok-joon's parents

his father opened the door.

MOTHER: My husband found him doubled over, kneeling in the bath tub with his hands together around his chest, grabbing his chest. The only thing on our mind was, why didn’t we find him sooner? If we had found him a bit sooner, we could have saved him.


Coupang fulfilment centre

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Deok-joon worked for the e-commerce giant Coupang, often described as Korea’s Amazon. He worked in one of their fulfilment centres, preparing items for delivery. Coupang manages its own logistics and has used artificial intelligence and real-time productivity monitoring to make its distribution chain the fastest in the business.



MOTHER: Coupang’s strength is so-called ‘Rocket Delivery’ where if you order something tonight it’ll be at your door by dawn the next morning. To deliver this kind of service there are constant deadlines. For about two hours until the deadline is met, you go through a living hell. Meeting the deadline will drive you into the ground.


Deok-joon parents into workshop

FATHER: After the autopsy, I realised how skinny he was. If only I had known earlier.


Father interview

Because of the pandemic his work became harder. If I’d known what sort of company Coupang is I would’ve stopped him from working there. If I’d seen how much weight he’d lost, I would’ve done everything to stop him.


Mother interview

MOTHER: We’re in our fifties, going on 60. All we learned was to work hard and endure hardship. But these really clever people used their brains only to devise ways to squeeze blood from the workers as much as possible within the boundaries of the law.


Wooden plaques and drawings of Deok-joon in home

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Deok-joon died of a heart attack. Coupang insisted it was not work-related., but his parents refused to accept the denial. They travelled to fulfilment centres all over the country


Parents' van

with a delivery truck bearing the slogan ‘Coupang Killed My Son!’ Finally, after months of campaigning, they received an official ruling:


Parents visit shrine

their son’s death was caused by overwork. 



MOTHER: There will be other victims like my son. There will be families like us. If consumers don’t start thinking about it there will be other victims. Do you really think it’s okay to turn a blind eye or force someone to be sacrificed for your convenience?


Father at shrine




FATHER: "I wish I could follow you. I am sorry. I should have touched you a whole lot more. Why don’t you come to me in my dreams anymore? Come and find me in my dreams. I want to talk to you."


Workers arrive at fulfilment centre

RYAN BROWN: Our sincere condolences go to his family. They have our deepest sympathy. You know,


Brown interview. Super:
Ryan Brown
Vice President, Health & Safety Coupang

today Coupang is the third-largest employer in Korea and that's about 50,000 people. And if you think about 50,000 people over the course of a year, you're going to have any number of personal medical conditions from within that population.



CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: : So, just be clear though, do you believe that this was a personal medical incident or this was a work-related death, a death because of overwork at Coupang?



RYAN BROWN: The government ruled this to be an industrial incident and we do accept that. The logistics industry in Korea averages about 80 accident-related fatalities a year. And, you know, Coupang from the start has prioritized the health and safety of its workers.


Drone shot. Delivery van. Night. Huh drives into warehouse



Carrington helps Huh with parcels

CARRINGTON: And do I keep doing this side?

HUH: Hmm?

CARRINGTON: Do I keep doing this side or should I do this side?

HUH: No, that one first.

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: I’m back with Huh Won-jae, helping him sort parcels at the distribution centre in Incheon.

HUH: Carrington, you know that I’m not getting paid for this, right?

CARRINGTON: Yeah, that seems crazy to me.

HUH: No, what I’m saying is that I, so I won’t be able to pay you.






Huh starts delivery

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Won-jae never planned to be a delivery driver. He holds a master’s degree in English and ran his own language schools in Canada and Japan. He moved back to Korea to be close to his ageing mother, who has early-stage dementia. Despite his qualifications and experience, he struggled to find work.


Huh eating meal in truck while driving

HUH: I still thought at the time that I could get some positions in some university, because I used to teach in universities as well. But I have to support myself and then also I have to support my mother. She’s sort of handicapped because of her illness. So, I visit my mum as often as possible, whenever I can.


Huh visits mother

HUH: Mum!

MOTHER: My youngest son? What brings you here?

HUH: It’s your birthday.

MOTHER: Is it today? No, it’s not today.

HUH: Mum, cake!

MOTHER: You even bought me a cake?


Birthday decorations

HUH: Mum, you have lived for 93 years.


Huh with mother

You lived under the Japanese occupation. That’s when you went to school. You experienced the Korean War with Dad.

MOTHER: Before the Korean War… Was it before the Korean War or during the Korean War that my husband died?

HUH: When you married him?

MOTHER: He had a stroke.

HUH: Hmm, I think that…



MOTHER: Although he died of a stroke, I brought up all six children. I helped them all to establish themselves. That’s why… people around me think highly of me.



I’m 93 years old. It’s not that common to reach this age, is it?

HUH: That’s right.

MOTHER: Do many live to be this age?

HUH: No, not many.

MOTHER: Are there many who are the same age?

HUH: Her memory fades away.



She was kind of mixed up with her memory just now when I asked her when she married…

MOTHER: [Speaking Japanese] Will it rain… or not?

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Won-jae’s father was an activist


Photo. Huh's parents. Huh and mother look at photos.

in the Korean Independence Movement that fought to liberate Korea from Japanese colonial rule. He met Won-jae’s mother in the 1940s when she was just a teenager.



MOTHER: He was in the army back then. As he walked past my house, he was waiving at me, asking me to come out. So I went out. We went to the bank of a stream. We went there and when we reached a lamp post he suddenly kissed me.

HUH: What she’s really clearly remembering is the first moment that he kiss her under the light of an electric pole, she’s telling…




MOTHER: When we were under the lamp post, he stole a kiss from me.

HUH: Did you like it?

MOTHER: Why do you think I married him?


Huh unpacking wheelchair for mother

HUH: During the colonial period these polarisations, in terms of the controlling power, same thing is happening even nowadays in the development of this capitalism. These economically and politically polarised people. Maybe the whole country’s been developing, but still in terms of the fair distribution of the assets or human rights, not really fairly developed yet.


Huh and sister assist mother into wheelchair

HUH: Take a seat here, Mum.

SISTER: Wait. Here. Here. Put your legs around here. That’s it.

MOTHER: I really hate it.


Time-lapse. Traffic




CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: While we’ve been filming this story, COVID infections have soared in South Korea to their highest level yet.


Lee driving

As restrictions begin to tighten once more, so does the strain on delivery workers.

LEE: COVID has increased our workload, so it's impossible for me go home. If not for COVID, I’d go down to see my children once or twice a month.






Lee arrives home

But they’re still young and I'm worried I might get infected and spread it to my family.

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Lee Seong Wook is busier than ever. He’s a branch leader of the Delivery Workers’ Union and has been trying to organise a protest in honour of his colleague Im Gwang Soo, who is still in a coma.



LEE: Currently, he’s had one operation. His survival rate has gone up a bit from five to twenty percent.



That’s why we’re preparing for a fight. A person’s life is at stake.



Seong Wook has brought his workmate’s truck back to his house for safekeeping.


Colleague's truck

LEE: His truck collected a lot of parking tickets. And there were a lot of complaints from people in the area. That’s why I brought it to my house because I have some space for parking. If he wakes up, he can drive his truck again. We’re waiting for a miracle.


Lee on video call with daughters

CARRINGTON CLARKE, Reporter: Seong Wook is separated from his wife and lives alone. It’s been six months since he’s hugged his daughters.



LEE: Can you see me okay?



DAUGHTER 1: You look different.

LEE: Because you haven’t seen me for ages?

DAUGHTER 2: I don’t think it’s my dad.

LEE: Take a closer look. Look here.



DAUGHTER 1: Oh no! Dad looks squarish around the face!

LEE: I look squarish?



LEE: Korean people work hard. They work hard. But as people keep dying, questions are asked about why it’s happening, and people start to realise it's because of overwork.



LEE: Na-kyung, stand up for me. I want to see how tall you are. Wow! What about Cho-hyun? Cho-hyun is nearly as tall. Wow! You’ve grown a lot.



LEE: If our generation can't change it, it’ll be passed down to the next generation and then what we do for our children would be meaningless.



LEE: Make sure you wear a mask to avoid COVID-19.

DAUGHTER 1: I’ll wear 100 of them.

DAUGHTER 2: I’ll wear 10,000 of them.

DAUGHTER 1: I’ll wear 100 times 10,000 of them. 

DAUGHTER 2: I’ll wear over 100 over 1000, over 10,000 and over every number of them.

DAUGHTER 1: I’ll wear that many times whatever you say.



LEE: Korean people are known for being hard workers. But it's all meaningless if you die. People are beginning to see that now.



DAUGHTER 2: I’ll go to the earth and the moon.

DAUGHTER 1: I’ll go to the universe.

DAUGHTER 2: I’ll go past the universe, past Hawaii, past Africa and past everything.



LEE: Bye-bye!



Credits [see below]








Carrington Clarke


Alex Barry
Sookyoung Lee


Mitchell Woolnough


Peter O'Donoghue
Mattew Walker


Alison McClymont


Assistant Editor
Tom Carr


Additional footage


Senior Production Manager
Michelle Roberts


Production Co-ordinator

Victoria Allen


Digital Producer
Matt Henry


Supervising Producer
Lisa McGregor


Executive Producer
Matthew Carney


© 2021 Australian Broadcasting Corporation


© 2021 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

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