Monday, July 4, 2022

South Korean truckers refuse to back down on fuel cost strike

The industrial action has disrupted shipments and production for the crucial steel, petrochemical and automobile sectors, in an early test for new President Yoon Suk-yeol who has vowed to deal with labour disputes 'strictly'.

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South Korean truck drivers staged an eighth day of protests Tuesday over wages and rising fuel costs, further snarling global supply chains with a strike that officials say has caused more than US$1 billion in losses.

The industrial action has disrupted shipments and production for the crucial steel, petrochemical and automobile sectors, in an early test for new President Yoon Suk-yeol who has vowed to deal with labour disputes “strictly”.

South Korea is the world’s largest memory chip exporter and home to global chip powerhouse Samsung Electronics, as well as large car companies including Kia and Hyundai Motors.

But the truckers say they are desperate due to sharp rises in fuel prices – with inflation at its highest level in over a decade.

They are also protesting against the ending of a minimum wage guarantee.

“All we are asking for is to remove the uncertainty in our lives,” Cho Jeong-jae, a member of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union, told AFP on Tuesday.

“Our livelihood is at stake.”

The strike in Asia’s fourth-largest economy is the latest blow to international supply chains that are already strained by Covid-19 lockdowns in China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

South Korea’s trade ministry said Tuesday that the action had resulted in losses for businesses of about 1.6 trillion won (US$1.2 billion).

Loud music blared from a van parked near a port on Tuesday in Incheon, a city bordering Seoul, AFP reporters saw, as dozens of trucks lined the road flying flags hoisted on bamboo canes.

Similar protests were happening across the country, with more than 7,000 people having taken part at 14 locations as of Monday, according to the land ministry.

Cho said the rising cost of fuel had not been reflected in the fees businesses pay to transport their goods.

“When fuel prices drop, it’s reflected very quickly by lowering freight fees,” Cho said. “But that’s not the case when fuel prices rise.”

Na Han-myeon, who has been driving cabs and trucks for 44 years, said most truckers were also rarely compensated for long working hours.

“Many of us work 17 hours a day,” he said. “We can bear it, but the cost of the labour does not come back to us, and it seems to shorten our lives little by little.”

‘Major setback’

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo called for an end to the strikes, saying they could deliver “a very difficult blow” to the country’s export-driven economy.

“It’s causing a major setback to the logistics network,” he said.

But the protesters say the rallies will not stop until their voices are heard.

“We have nowhere else to retreat,” said Lee Seung-ho, who has been driving trucks for three decades.

“We will not stop until our demand is accepted, since all we are doing by stepping back is giving up on our rights,” Lee told AFP.

Negotiations are ongoing, but the government has come under fire for a “hostile” policy towards workers, which critics say is fuelling tensions.

On the campaign trail, Yoon – a political novice – had vowed to be strict on labour disputes and indicated he was more pro-business on issues such as minimum working hours.

At least 23 members of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union have been arrested for “illegal activities” at the protests that include “interfering” with normal vehicle operations, according to the transport ministry.

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