Coupang is South Korea’s largest e-commerce platform. The company went public last month on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), in the biggest initial public offering (IPO) to date this year. The company is often dubbed “the Amazon of South Korea,” but the comparison is overstated. The US online behemoth turned its first yearly profit nine years after its founding. Coupang, ten years after its launch, has yet to turn a profit. Over the past decade, the South Korean equivalent to Amazon has amassed about $4.2 billion in losses.
It is almost a norm for early-stage start-ups to focus on revenue and investment growth at the expense of earnings. However, less than two years ago, Coupang — which raised $84.5 billion in its IPO — was on the edge of a crisis. It was quickly burning through the $2.7 billion received from its Japanese backer, SoftBank — as the company attempted to outcompete other e-retailers and even encroach on big-box retailers’ perishable aisles, with a series of aggressive moves such as early-morning and late-night deliveries, in tune with the daily life of the country with the longest working hours in the wealthy world.
With this expansion, Coupang could not recast South Korea’s highly competitive retail industry to its advantage in ways Amazon did in the United States nor break open a clear path to profitability or an IPO — up until 2019, Coupang’s operating loss almost irreversibly engulfed revenue, thus overburdening Softbank, which had been burned by the $9 billion WeWork debacle.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns boosted demand for Coupang’s online deliveries, which helped narrow net losses to $567.6 million in 2020 from $770.2 million. This was good enough for the company to go public on the NYSE, which was keen to embrace another cash-burning start-up regardless of its dubious potential for profitability. But the offering’s $84.5 billion windfall did not brighten the prospects for profit, with one Coupang backer diverting a question by CNBC about profitability to instead focus on cash flows.
Still, Coupang is an Amazon clone that exceeds the US company in its abusive labor practices. The South Korean company had aggressively expanded its logistics network to the point that 70 percent of the country’s population of 52 million is now within a seven-mile radius of its fulfillment centers.
The combination of a multitiered employment structure and algorithm-based surveillance of workers keeps money-losing operations efficient for management — and deadly for workers. To date, eight fulfillment workers, including two temporary ones, have died of overwork, according to an affiliate of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. The latest victim was a forty-eight-year-old night-shift foreman identified only by his surname, Yi.
Before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in early March, Yi might have considered himself a survivor: he was very close to gaining regular employee status after a year of temping. He worked nonstop at his fulfillment center and, after hours, he used Coupang’s supervisory app on his smartphone to track deliveries in hopes of becoming full-time, with benefits under a fixed-term contract longer than a year — he had to outdo his coworkers and outlast two separate short-term contracts to join the top 15.5 percent of Coupang’s 13,000-strong fulfillment workforce. Yi died two days after being posted to a new job with his new status.
Coupang is now the country’s third-largest employer, behind only Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors. In addition to an army of contract workers like Yi, the company hires about forty thousand people on a daily basis via a smartphone app for the fulfillment centers. All these are possible thanks to a large pool of platform labor populated by precarious workers who depend on apps to land their gigs. As of 2019, one in every four South Korean workers is temporary, according to the OECD.
Central to Coupang’s highly automated operations are algorithms meant to surveil and track workers. Even its own public relations video reveals that fulfillment workers use little safety gear while feeding high-speed conveyor belts.
Workers are required to carry a handheld device that tracks every single movement and monitors the speed and volume of their work. Their performances are measured in how many units they process each hour (UPH). UPH is not an hourly quota — it is instead used to measure all workers on the same line, one against another, in per-hour movements. The metric ensures all workers, new and experienced, compete against one another to work harder and faster. They skip bathroom breaks to keep up. Supervisors often publicly scold the laggards, who will eventually be denied a new contract or gig.
In February, when local press reports singled out UPH as cause of death for fulfillment workers, Coupang released a vaguely worded statement claiming it had ridden “all systems” of “individual UPH.” I asked the company’s media contact what has replaced UPH to measure individual performance at fulfillment facilities. They haven’t responded.
“It is difficult to confirm whether UPH is repealed entirely,” says Kim Han-byoul, an organizer with the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) affiliate attempting to unionize Coupang delivery drivers named “Coupang Friends.” “Coupang uses APH to keep drivers delivering more and faster.” The average-per-hour (APH) measure works similarly to UPH as it is used to monitor and rank the hourly performances of drivers working their designated area.
In its prospectus, Coupang says its fifteen thousand parcel delivery drivers are full-time employees with benefits. But Kim argues that’s wrong: “Drivers are temporary workers whose contracts have to be renewed every year.” As with their fulfillment coworkers, Coupang Friends are faced with competition-driven performance goals and job insecurity.
The condition is even worse for Coupang Eats, which now has more than 210,000 couriers who deliver food. The 210,000 milestone was important to Coupang, says Park Jung-hoon, president of the Rider Union organizing these couriers, because they have accomplished economies of scale to slash wages for the couriers. Coupang uses a complex fee structure to pay couriers depending on region and peak hours. “Fees can change every five minutes,” says Park.
Coupang runs on job insecurity and precarity, pressing its temporary and gig workers to the point of fatal exhaustion. The company is not exceptional in this regard. Pundits on both the Left and the Right tend to misunderstand algorithms and artificial intelligence: these technologies are more about workplace surveillance and intimidation than labor displacement. From Amazon to Alibaba, Uber Eats to Deliveroo, logistics capitalists around the world use surveillance algorithms to whip up fear and extract increased labor from desperate workers, fattening their own purses despite slim prospects for company profitability.
Deliveroo’s recent IPO flop was telling. The Amazon-backed British food delivery start-up gave London its worst IPO in history as investors worried that regulators could take action against the gig economy — a rare capitalist admission that what keeps these firms afloat is a cheap pool of unregulated gig labor.
“Employers aggressively capitalize on the vulnerability, insecurity and precarity of workers in the form of platform labor,” Dr Lee Youngju, a senior researcher with the Emancipation Institute for Labor Studies, a Seoul-based independent labor think tank, says. “Globally, there is no clear regulatory definition of platform labor yet.”
In South Korea, both Park’s and Kim’s unionization drives are in their incipiency. The two organizations are now seeking a joint campaign to call upon the National Assembly to legislate their work status as employees, not contractors. In the UK, on April 7, riders for Deliveroo held a strike for better pay and working conditions, coinciding with the first day of the post-lockup share trading for the startup. Around the world, the labor movement needs a coordinated pushback against the prevalence of algorithm-driven platform labor and temporary work on offer from companies like Coupang.