Hwaseong, South Korea – When Jeong Dong-heon returns house from work at a Coupang logistics centre, he usually finds crusty white patterns on the again and sides of his shirt.
The flower-like shapes are created by gathered salt deposits – a results of the sweat that pours off his physique as he works at an enormous warehouse run by one among South Korea’s largest corporations.
Jeong works from 8am to 5pm, finishing up bodily duties that embrace lifting and carrying heavy containers. This summer season, South Korea has skilled record-setting temperatures and the warmth has grow to be so dizzying that Jeong usually worries about collapsing.
“Working within the warehouse looks like being inside a boiling pot,” Jeong, 29, informed Al Jazeera.
Jeong is amongst a personnel organising for air-con to be thought of not a luxurious, however a fundamental necessity for them to do their jobs safely. He and his colleagues are searching for to remind the corporate, and clients, of the human sweat on the root of handy, fast deliveries.
With warmth waves now a routine incidence in July and August, staff need Coupang to decide to binding options. Their calls for: ample air-con in all workspaces and a assured 20 minutes of relaxation time for each two hours of labor.
Coupang rose to grow to be South Korea’s main e-commerce agency with its speedy, cheap supply of a near-infinite array of products, from contemporary fruit to garden mowers and foot massagers.
Like its US rival Amazon, Coupang has confronted allegations that its high-tech dominance is constructed on the exploitation of staff. Not less than two deaths have been reported on the centre the place Jeong works, and labour teams declare that strenuous office circumstances had been components. Final yr, a authorities physique linked the dying of a 27-year-old man at one other Coupang centre to his lengthy hours engaged on the warehouse flooring.
In all seasons, work at Coupang is bodily taxing. An unbiased 2021 examine discovered that 73 % of staff reported their work to be extra intense than quick strolling. Half of the employees surveyed mentioned that they “all the time” felt exhausted after their shift, with practically 30 % saying they “usually” felt exhausted.
With greater than 60,000 staff, Coupang is South Korea’s third-largest employer, behind Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor Firm. When the corporate debuted on the New York Inventory Trade final yr, it introduced plans to rent 50,000 extra workers within the nation by 2025.
Yoon Soo-hyun, a 43-year-old employee at a Coupang centre in Goyang, a satellite tv for pc metropolis north of Seoul, mentioned casual norms on the warehouse flooring discourage staff from taking breaks.
“The corporate places out a couple of chairs and tells us that if we’re drained, we will sit for some time,” Yoon informed Al Jazeera. “However everybody feels nervous as a result of there are all the time supervisors watching us, seeing who’s on break and for a way lengthy.”
He added, “We don’t wish to lose our jobs, so we simply do what we’re informed.”
Coupang says it meets authorities requirements.
“We meet and/or exceed all health-related authorities rules for the indoor and outside working areas of our fulfilment facilities,” the corporate informed Al Jazeera in a press release.
“If a employee has any well being problem for any cause whereas working at one among our services, they’re permitted to cease working.”
Although Coupang staff have organised as a way to get air-con, some consultants say that enormous areas like warehouses current distinctive challenges that make it tough to maintain them cool.
Jung Jin-woo, a professor at Seoul Nationwide College of Science and Expertise who research occupational security and well being administration, mentioned anticipating air-con within the warehouses is “unrealistic”.
“The centres have very excessive ceilings, they’re open 24 hours a day, and the area is greater than 15 occasions bigger than a soccer area,” Jung informed Al Jazeera.
In the meantime, Coupang informed Al Jazeera it has put in 20,000 cooling items, together with air conditioners and followers, in its logistics centres and supplies air-conditioned break rooms on each flooring. However staff say this doesn’t go far sufficient and the warehouses are nonetheless oppressively sizzling.
Whereas Coupang has constructed up an enormous buyer base lately, the agency’s efforts to remain forward within the fiercely aggressive e-commerce sector, together with main investments in automation, have resulted in steep losses.
The corporate recorded internet losses of $405m within the final quarter of 2021 and one other $209m in losses throughout the first quarter of this yr. Since debuting on the New York Inventory Trade final yr, Coupang has confronted rising strain from traders to show a revenue, analysts say.
The corporate’s near-term prospects are additionally sophisticated by the commonly weak financial outlook in South Korea, a rustic at the moment beset by sluggish development and excessive inflation.
“Individuals have much less to spend, so there’ll in all probability be a slowing of Coupang’s income development,” Shin Se-don, a professor of economics at Sookmyung Ladies’s College in Seoul, informed Al Jazeera.
Regardless of the challenges staff face, Coupang nonetheless provides jobs which might be engaging to many South Koreans, particularly these with out the tutorial credentials historically required for white-collar positions.
Coupang mentioned staff in its fulfilment centres can earn as much as 3.42 million gained ($2,652) monthly, a aggressive quantity in a rustic with a minimal wage of 9,160 gained ($7.03) per hour. The corporate additionally doesn’t require particular schooling or expertise credentials when hiring.
Jeong, who’s wiry and energetic, has labored at Coupang since April of final yr and says he’s dedicated to remaining there for the foreseeable future. He’s motivated not solely by his personal have to make a dwelling, however a need to enhance the lot of a rising variety of staff in an organization that’s quick changing into one among his nation’s most recognisable company manufacturers.
Final month, Jeong and different Coupang staff wheeled an air conditioner and marched 50km (32 miles) from the corporate’s headquarters in southeastern Seoul to the warehouse the place he works.
On the finish of the march, Jeong caught his breath within the shadow of the hulking constructing the place he spends his days. He described the battle for air-con as a step in direction of longer-term targets, like larger wages and extra say in firm affairs.
“This will probably be an extended wrestle,” he mentioned.