Image: Character representing Baemin, a popular South Korean delivery platform. Credit: Baemin.
In 1970, labor activist Jeon Tae-il 전태일 immolated himself in protest of inhumane labor conditions, with his last words “We are not machines!” becoming the slogan that sparked South Korea’s labor movement. (See previous coverage, “Labor Movement and Progressive Politics.”) In a recent op-ed for Kyunghyang Shinmun 경향신문, Park Jeong-hun 박정훈 of the Rider Union 라이더유니온, one of Korea’s labor unions for delivery workers, evoked Jeon’s struggles.
Park noted that the AI assignment system for the popular food delivery apps like Baemin 배민, Coupang Eats 쿠팡이츠 and Yogiyo 요기요 calculates the delivery fees based on straight-line distance, although the actual path may be blocked by a mountain or a river, and makes no consideration for situations like a broken elevator at a high rise apartment.
Park wrote: “AI treats workers not as humans, but as dots. Just as Charlie Chaplin turned around like a machine in Modern Times, the riders continue to move in the smartphone app. The customers don’t see humans in their smartphones, but a cute character scuttling about. Jeon Tae-il proclaimed ‘We are not machines’, but the workers today must scream: ‘We are not data, we are not characters!’”