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'These packages might kill me': The harsh reality of freelance delivery drivers in Japan

(Getty Images)

TOKYO -- As demand for online shopping increases under the coronavirus pandemic, delivery drivers working as sole proprietors in Japan are complaining about their distressing situation, with some saying that they are forced to work extremely tight and long hours, and that their contracts have been unilaterally canceled.

    What is happening to these drivers, whose livelihoods are becoming increasingly popular as a "free working style"? A Mainichi Shimbun reporter interviewed some of the people who carry packages for Amazon to find out.

    The packages to be delivered could not fit in the rear cargo of a microvan, and were piled up in the passenger seat as well. From 9 a.m., a 44-year-old man delivers the goods for about 13 hours with hardly any breaks. For lunch, he buys pastries and takes five minutes to finish them in the vehicle.

    The driver from Yokohama apparently felt a sense of crisis around September of this year. He recalled thinking, "I am being forced to do excessive work and keep driving. If I keep on like this, I might cause an accident or collapse. These packages might kill me."

    In November 2017, the man signed a consignment contract with a delivery company subcontracted by Amazon Japan G.K. to deliver packages. Until then, he had been working as a care worker, but his take-home pay was about 180,000 yen (about $1,577). To pay for his living expenses, his consumer loan debt had grown to 1.8 million yen (about $15,770). He wanted to increase his income, so he started his own business as a delivery service provider.

    (Getty Images)

    If drivers are sole proprietors, they need to prepare their own vehicle for delivery, and they also have to pay for gasoline and other expenses themselves.

    The Yokohama man lives at his parents' house with his mother. Five days a week, he goes to a warehouse of the contracted delivery company at 8 a.m., loads his microvan with packages to be delivered that day, and heads out to deliver them. He is paid 17,000 yen (about $148) a day, regardless of the number of packages he delivers. His monthly income is about 350,000 yen (about $3,066), and after deducting gasoline and other expenses, he is left with about 200,000 yen (about $1,752).

    "I have 1 million yen (about $8,760) left in debt, and I'm paying off about 50,000 yen (about $437) a month, so life is tough. I'd like to get married, but I don't have any savings, and I can't meet anyone to marry at work because it's all men," he sighs.

    In addition, due to the spread of the coronavirus, the number of packages has increased since last year. At the beginning of last year, he was delivering about 110 packages a day, but from around May of this year, it has surged to over 200 packages at times.

    "I feel like I'm being pushed to the limit of the number of packages I can handle. For a while, I felt kind of depressed." The man continued with a tired expression, "The wages per day have not changed, but the number of packages has increased dramatically. The reality is that I'm forced to work too much. I would like to see measures taken, such as setting a minimum unit pay for handling a single package and an upper limit on the number of items that can be delivered in a day."

    In addition to receiving consignments from subcontractors and other companies like this man, there are also sole proprietors who carry Amazon's packages by receiving direct consignments from Amazon through a system called "Amazon Flex."

    A man speaks about his current situation as a sole proprietor with a subcontractor for Amazon Japan G.K., at the Mainichi Shimbun's headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroko Michishita)

    According to Amazon Japan, Amazon Flex started in 2019 in some areas around Tokyo and is now spreading nationwide. The program is open to people 20 years or older who own a light cargo truck or microvan registered as a "small-size motor truck transportation business." They can choose the delivery area and the amount of work equivalent to two to eight hours per day by themselves.

    A man in his 30s living in Tokyo registered with Amazon Flex when it had just started. He worked eight hours a day, mostly from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and earned 16,000 yen (about $140) a day. He was satisfied with the work and thought, "I can keep my own pace and earn a steady income."

    In October 2020, however, Amazon Japan abruptly canceled his contract, sending an email explaining the reason: "We have received multiple reports of undelivered goods from our customers. We have repeatedly sent you advisories by email."

    The man filed a complaint with Amazon Japan, saying that he had never had any undelivered items that could cause problems, but he apparently hasn't heard back from the company. He claimed, "I feel that the matter has been left unresolved. I can't accept this."

    According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), the number of small-size motor truck transportation businesses, which provide delivery by car or motorcycle, hovered at around 150,000 from the end of fiscal 2010 to the end of fiscal 2016, but has since increased, reaching about 177,000 as of the end of March 2020.

    A MLIT official said, "As the number of businesses selling goods online and other services is increasing, the number of sole proprietors contracting with these companies is also probably rising.

    As sole proprietors, they are not covered by the Labor Standards Acts, which stipulates minimum wages and working hours.

    According to a survey conducted by the Yokohama-based labor union Keikamotsu Union, literally meaning light cargo union, on 83 freelance delivery workers between April and November of this year, more than 25% of them worked an average of 12 hours or more per day. About 40% had experienced "a unilateral reduction or a disadvantageous change in freight rates," and more than 25% had been forced to "work excessive and long hours."

    Hideharu Takahashi, the union's representative, said, "Among the workers we consulted, there was a company that wrote in its contract, 'If you deliver to the wrong address, you will be charged a penalty of 30,000 yen (about $262).'

    "Being fired unilaterally or being forced to do something disadvantageous is rampant. However, if they complain, their contracts are canceled or they are not given any work. The position of sole proprietors is weak."

    Hideo Kunitake, a professor of labor law at Otaru University of Commerce, said, "Overseas, some countries have established regulations that deem freelancers as workers unless the company proves that they are sole proprietors, and the global trend is to respond to the issue of freelancing as one of the problems with labor laws. In Japan, we also need to have a discussion to review the scope of the application of labor laws."

    (Japanese original by Hiroko Michishita, Digital News Center)

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