JoongAng Ilbo reporter Lim Seong-bin rides his scooter to deliver food orders and experiences firsthand the life of 'Baemin riders.' Customers can track their food delivery progress in real time through Baemin's app. [LIM SEONG-BIN]
The slogan of Baemin Riders is "work whenever, wherever, as much as you want."
It turns out, you may have to work a whole lot just to make ends meet, completing roughly 400 deliveries a month.
The basic concept is simple, straightforward and appealing. Baemin Riders is a part-time food delivery service of Baedal Minjok, Korea's largest food delivery app. Baedal Minjok is commonly referred to as Baemin.
The delivery service, which started last year, allows anyone who owns a moving vehicle – whether it is a motorcycle, a bicycle or even an electric scooter – to sign up as a food delivery person, a "Baemin rider."
The job has no office or a fixed schedule and can be done at anytime on any day of the week after two hours of mandatory education.
Baemin riders are some of the many "touch workers" in the growing gig economy. They are called that because they can get work simply with the touch of a mobile platform.
The rapid rise of these so-called digital platforms has provided opportunities for extra pay, but they have also been the subject of criticism, as the jobs they provide tend to be low-paying and require work under poor and possibly dangerous conditions.
Lim Seong-bin, a JoongAng Ilbo reporter, spent time as a delivery worker and found that the obvious problems with these jobs are just the beginning.
Here are a few entries from Lim's work diary.
First day on the job
Dec. 6 was my first day as a Baemin rider, and it was a cold one: minus five degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit). As I started to ride through the icy wind, the batteries powering my electric scooter and smartphone began running low quickly. My order dashboard had a near zero charge very quickly, and within two hours it just shut down.
Other Baemin "colleagues" zipped by me dressed in the uniform of the delivery app. While in the past, delivery workers were hired by individual restaurants, now they are hired to platforms.
In two hours, I completed three deliveries. The total pay was 14,500 won ($12.50) which was below minimum wage. (The hourly minimum wage in 2019 was 8,350 won.) Since the job pays per task and is not based on time, the working hours can be longer given the "hidden working hours," with delivery workers watching the monitor and waiting for new deliveries.
On Dec. 16, I started work in daylight for safety, but safe it was not.
I tried to keep up with the flow of traffic, but there were potholes here and there, and sure enough, my camera went flying. When I hit the brakes to pick up my device, I was almost hit by a car. Close call. I was able to retrieve my phone only because of a red light.
Left: Woowa Brothers' delivery bot that was tested at Konkuk University's Seoul campus in November 2019. Above: German taxi drivers protesting Uber. [YONHAP]
Falling through the cracks
Like Lim, most "platform workers," those who work for companies that operate as online or mobile platforms, are responsible for their own safety, and they have to pay for their own insurance.
Baemin riders are better off than others, since the company helps them sign up for insurance. But the final decision is up to the individual rider.
The riders are categorized as "workers in special employment types" and can sign up for the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance.
Motorcyclists are required to purchase their own insurance.
They either sign up for full coverage or pay an hourly insurance.
But if an accident occurs, it's hard for platform workers to claim insurance benefits.
Since the workers are hired on-demand, they don't always qualify for compensation.
According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, a worker needs to earn the majority of their wages from or spend the majority their time working for their contracted employer in order to get insurance on work-related injuries.
Discussions are ongoing to clarify the rules.
Less than minimum wage
On the 16th, Lim was faster than on the 6th. He was able to complete three deliveries in less than an hour, making 12,400 won. After deducting tax, it was just a little over the minimum wage.
In the two days, Lim was able to make 26,900 won for six deliveries, leaving him with only 4,483 won for each delivery. The job is certainly flexible, but in order to take home a medium income of 1.75 million won a month, he would have to complete 392 deliveries. That is 98 deliveries every week, 20 deliveries for every work day.
Platform-based delivery work depends on many variables. It depends on a rider's health condition and driving skills and the amount of support given by the company.
It is unlikely that platform-based jobs, like being a Baemin rider, will replace traditional jobs in the near future.
In early January, for the first time, Rider Union staged a protest in Gangnam in southern Seoul, demanding Baedal Minjok allow for collective bargaining. It also demanded a transparent wage structure, since riders' fees change everyday depending on the number of orders and the weather conditions.
This is the first labor right's protest in Korea organized by platform workers. Last January, a French court defined the relationship between Uber and its drivers as a work contract.
The court stated that there is relationship of subordination between drivers and Uber since the drivers rely heavily on Uber for their living expenses and do not have the freedom to choose their rate. Germany banned Uber in 2018, arguing that the company lacks a necessary license to offer passenger transport services.
Gig workers do not clock into an office, but they still receive orders from an app or a mobile device even though they are considered by law as self-employed.
Among 460,000 platform laborers in Korea, many do not follow the traditional "employee-employer" relationship, according to research by the Korea Labor & Society Institute. This means that 1.5 to 2.3 percent of Korea's actively working population falls through the cracks of labor laws.
Despite not-so-favorable working conditions, experts project the industry to grow even further.
According to the Bank of Korea's report on the global gig economy, the industry grew 65 percent year-on-year globally in 2017. It is almost $82 billion in size. On-demand hiring practices were comparatively well received in Korea; 21.5 percent of the local adult population was involved in the gig and sharing economies in 2018, which is double that of the United States, according to last year's Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report.
The expansion of the platform economy is causing conflicts around the world, as relevant laws fail to keep up with the times.
Except for the case of France, which gave the three primary rights of laborers to platform workers, the issue of platform workers remain unresolved.
At the core of the debate is a changing definition of labor.
Those who support platform-based labor argue that society needs to recognize it as a different form of labor.
Since the industry is already adding jobs, if we recognize them as legitimate workers, it will help improve their working conditions, they say. On the other hand, some believe the business model is another form of exploitation and should disappear.
What makes matters worse is Korea's stalled labor laws.
Scholars who study local labor laws have voiced the need to embrace platform-based labor. However in a society with adversarial management-union relations, revising the labor laws is not an easy task. Squeezing platform-based workers into Korea's rigid labor system can only be a Band-Aid solution.
Professor Lee Myoung-jin, who teaches sociology at Korea University, believes that society needs to redefine labor laws.
"The contract relationship between laborers and employers is becoming blurred," Lee said. "We need to make changes in the labor laws so that employers and laborers can mutually benefit in things like pensions and insurance."
Belated efforts are underway from the government.
Labor Minister Lee Jae-gab pledged in his New Year's address that the government will expand the coverage of national insurance to include platform-based workers.
"The ministry will revise the current occupational insurance system to protect delivery workers who are marginalized in terms of legal protection through consultations with experts and discussions with relevant labor bodies," Minister Lee said.
The Labor Ministry plans to form a social consultative body discussing the issue in the first half of the year.
Alternatives and safety nets
Despite controversy, the platform-based gig economy seems to create new jobs.
Jung Woo-jeong is a 30-year-old employee of Woowa Brothers, which developed Baemin.
At the company, he is in charge of menu policies and inputting menus of restaurants serviced on Baemin's app.
"It's easy to automate the input of menus from large franchises [on the Baemin app]," Jung said. "But the menus have to be input manually for small mom-and-pop stores."
There are 100 workers like Jung doing menu entry at Woowa.
The company also has an employee who is in charge of developing server bots.
Experts say with the creation of new jobs, establishing social safety nets according to the new form of work is important.
"Reforming the labor law requires rigorous processes, such as getting the labor union and the company to agree," said Lee Moon-ho, director of the Workin Institute for Organizational Innovation. "Securing safety nets such as introducing standard contracts and insurance for platform workers should come first."
BY JEON YOUNG-SEON, KIM YOUNG-JOO AND LIM SEONG-BIN [[email protected]]
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