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Government poised to order striking truckers back to work

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Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, second from left, speaks during a press conference at the Seoul Government Complex in Gwanghwamun, Monday. Yonhap
Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, second from left, speaks during a press conference at the Seoul Government Complex in Gwanghwamun, Monday. Yonhap

Shipments drop sharply at 12 key ports, export-driving manufacturers hit hard

By Lee Kyung-min

President Yoon Suk-yeol will convene a Cabinet meeting Tuesday to determine whether to issue an executive order to require striking truckers to resume work immediately, as the first negotiation between the government and truckers' union broke down Monday afternoon, government sources said Monday.

Truckers refusing to comply face a suspension of their driver's licenses and possible revocation thereafter. A continued failure to comply will result in a maximum prison term of three years or a fine of 30 million won. The ongoing strike is estimated to have caused economic losses of 300 billion won ($223 million) per day.

Propelling the stern and unprecedented measure is the fifth-day extension of the collective action organized by hardline unionized truckers under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). This is their second walkout since June when the export-reliant economy suffered 2 trillion won in losses in economic activities.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said at least 7,600 truckers took part in protests at 177 locations nationwide, Monday. They account for about a third of the 25,000 hardline union members, or less than 6 percent of the 440,000 truckers in the country.

Among the hardest hit are steelmakers, builders and refiners. The outbound shipments of steel products plunged to 22,000 tons, Sunday, only 47.8 percent of the seasonal average, according to government data. The combined volume of outbound and inbound shipments at 12 ports tanked to 21 percent of the seasonal average.

Unionized truckers under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) engage in sit-ins at Uiwang Inland Container Depot in Gyeonggi Province, Monday. Yonhap
Unionized truckers under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) engage in sit-ins at Uiwang Inland Container Depot in Gyeonggi Province, Monday. Yonhap

Rule of law

"The principle of rule of law will be sternly followed," Yoon said during a meeting with top presidential secretaries, Monday.

"Whether it be the management or the labor, illegalities will be met with the sternest possible measures. The management-labor issues will be governed by law and principle," he added.

The remarks are the latest in a continued verbal warning over the past few days.

"The public will not tolerate holding the logistics industry hostage in the midst of a national crisis," he wrote on his Facebook, Nov. 24. "The government is left with no choice but to consider measures, including an executive order, to bring them back to work if the irresponsible act of this sort continues."

The deputy presidential spokesperson said Sunday that the collective action is expected to cause major inconveniences to the public, in the form of fuel shortages.

Up to 80 percent of the cargo truckers who carry fuel provided by the top four local refiners ― SK Innovation, GS Caltex, S-Oil and Hyundai Oilbank ― are union members. This is why the spokesperson says a prolonged strike will lead to a short-term fuel shortage at gas stations and overall price hikes.

"The government once again emphasizes that measures going forward will prioritize the public's safety and convenience when responding to a few resorting to the might of collective action, which directly threatens the livelihood of the public and the economy at large," the spokesperson said.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said the strike was akin to the COVID-19 pandemic, in what he characterized as a social disaster causing extreme economic consequences for the country.

"The striking truckers are expected to cause a per day economic loss of 300 billion won," Lee said during a press conference at the Seoul Government Complex in Gwanghwamun, Monday.

The government and ruling People Power Party decided last week on a three-year extension of a disputed law put in place to guarantee a minimum wage for truckers to help prevent cargo overloading and sleep deprivation. The law took effect in 2020 and was set to expire on Dec. 31.

However, the truckers have since refused to budge from their initial stance of demanding a full, unconditional extension of the law and more industrial sectors to be affected by the regulation.

The transport ministry said in June that truckers will be eligible for increased government subsidies in the event of an unexpected steep price jump in key global commodity prices, as seen in the last few months.

Also accepted were demands for a complete exemption of criminal prosecution or investigation for those who engaged in the collective action, and greater government fuel tax benefits.

Negotiations between Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Won Hee-ryong and a group of striking truckers ended in failure, Monday.

The union members said Monday's negotiation failed to produce any meaningful outcome.

"We have participated in today's negotiations in a forward-looking manner to resolve the issue as soon as possible through dialogue," the members said in a statement.

However, the vice transport minister left the room even before the meeting ended, after repeatedly saying that he was not in a position to grant any of the truckers' demands, they added.

"We have called for the undemocratic and unconstitutional executive order to be retracted, asking the ministry to respond to our efforts to move the discussions forward, only to be met with the same answer that the ministry lacks discretion to do anything," they said.

The members demanded that the failed talks resume with the land minister in charge.

"We will begin the stalled talks Wednesday. The transport minister must take over with full discretion at the ready. We demand the ministry not undermine the genuine collective efforts of our move."

In response, the land minister said the executive order will take effect immediately after the Cabinet meeting ends.

"The order will be put into action without any delay," he said during a meeting with a group of reporters at the Sejong Government Complex.

Key growth industries are taking a hit, a highly concerning development for the country reeling from a combination of unfavorable economic and business conditions, he added.

"The government will mobilize all possible efforts to limit the repercussions on the economy led by the self-interests of a few.The transport industry disruption has a grave implication for the economy as a whole, a reason why collective action must not be used as an effective tool to advance their interests," he added.



Lee Kyung-min lkm@koreatimes.co.kr


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