Jang Hyuk is a 29-year-old in Seoul who works for Baemin, South Korea’s most popular food delivery app. He’s been a rider for six years now, working for several platforms, including Uber Eats and the local player Coupang Eats.

By 2019, South Korea’s food delivery market was ranked third largest in the world. And between 2017 and 2020, food service transactions in the country shot up by 85.4%. The cost of deliveries that arrive with “bullet speed” falls largely on uninsured delivery people who work in dangerous conditions, often late at night. Last year, 16 delivery workers died from what labor unions called “death by overwork.”

Delivery conglomerates like Baemin are consistently advertising for part-time jobs, making the pitch that almost anyone can “work whenever, wherever, as much as you want,” at the same time that South Korea’s economy is shedding jobs at its fastest rate in more than two decades. This glut of new delivery workers, along with plummeting wages, has left riders like Jang, who rely on deliveries for the entirety of their income, falling between the cracks.

(Note: $1 is about 1,163 won.)

Nine p.m. is when the countdown really starts in my head, when all the commuters are out of my way and when the roads start to empty out. It’s the final stretch of my 12-hour workday. Deliveries end at midnight, and the pressure is on. My personal target is 250,000 won a night [about $215]. There are days when I’m at 170,000 to 180,000 won at the end of the night though, and I try not to think too hard about it and just go home.

The Baemin app automatically generates orders. It takes about three seconds for me to scan how much it’ll pay, the pickup location, and the final destination. I take an order from a coffee shop; I know they tend to run behind, so I can ease off the gas to give the barista enough time to prepare the order — milk tea and chamomile yuzu tea. Even though it’s a Monday, I still have to weave around groups of drunk people stumbling out of corner shops. Even after six years, it’s still one of the most frustrating parts of the job. I use music to keep my spirits up — today, it’s K-pop group Brave Girls’ retro tune “We Ride” coming through my AirPods at high volume.

It takes about 16 minutes to get from the café to the customer’s apartment. I hand over the milk teas with one hand and accept the next order as I’m walking out. Spicy pork rice bowls and potato croquettes, 1.9 kilometers out. The details — distance, minutes — matter. Riders can choose to manually select their orders or let AI do the work. The machine is faster, usually by just one delivery, but that one delivery counts. Before I’ve even delivered the rice bowls, the app has already generated my next destination. In theory, you do get a choice of which orders you accept, but it’s not one you can make in practice. The more times a rider hits decline, the longer it takes for the next request to show up. Sometimes it’s as long as five minutes.

Up until this year, riders were able to plot their own itineraries in advance. That meant you could stack orders in advance, queuing up five or six restaurants in one cluster, so you could drop them all off in another. The longer you worked as a rider, the faster you could think up your own map that maximized efficiency, speed, and reaped a dollar or two more. But it’s no longer on brand for riders to lug a bento box, chocolate cake, energy drinks, and seafood pancakes all in one go. Customers want their orders delivered from the restaurant straight to their doorstep, one at a time and without any pit stops in between. More stops, extra miles, and lost time have cut my earnings by almost a third. The only way I can make up for it is by putting in one-third the amount of extra work. 

“More stops, extra miles, and lost time have cut my earnings by almost a third.”

I have scoliosis, and my back pain starts to kick in at this point in my shift. Tomorrow, I’ll only be working eight hours at my other delivery job at McDonald’s. It’s where I got my first job, at 22, as a crew member, in Seoul, and it’s now my ticket to a pension plan and health, employment, and workers’ compensation insurance — things I’m not guaranteed at Baemin. It’s eight hours a day, twice a week, and I just go wherever the store manager tells me, which is nice because I don’t feel the pressure of competing against myself or any algorithm. 

An order of fried chicken and jumbo onion rings is a welcome one — it takes me to my current favorite place to drive, the Jongno district in central Seoul. It’s a dull, white-collar area full of government buildings, where there are fewer young, part-time riders, which means less competition. You do start to recognize one another, even through the helmet visors. But there aren’t that many full-timers left. Eighty percent of riders are what I think of as “leisure riders,” people who stroll, ride scooters, or make deliveries by driving their car around the city. On YouTube, I see experimental vlogs of people testing out the delivery worker lifestyle for a day. It’s made me consider just investing in a GoPro and becoming a vlogger myself. The first thing I’d show my viewers is the bottom left corner of my ID card, where there’s a message that lets anyone who may find me know that I’m a certified organ donor. 

I have just enough time for one last order before the end of the hour. Three cups of ice cream from a little shop near Ewha Womans University, traveling about 8 kilometers northwest. It’s a 21-minute journey from shop to customer, which takes me to 10:02 p.m. I’ve done seven trips and made 21,300 won [about $18.50]. I just have to do all of that two more times before I can go home.