South Korea president warns of crackdown as trucker strike enters second day

Union truckers shout slogans as they kick off their strike in front of transport hub Uiwang, south of Seoul. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL – South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol warned that the government might step in to break up a nationwide strike by truckers, describing it as an illegal and unacceptable move to take the national supply chain “hostage” during an economic crisis.

Thousands of unionised truckers on Thursday launched their second major strike in less than six months seeking better pay and working conditions.

The action is disrupting supply chains across the world’s 10th-largest economy, affecting automakers, and cement and steel producers.

Union officials said there were no ongoing negotiations with the government. The transport ministry said it requested dialogue with the union on Thursday, but that the parties have yet to agree on a date.

Union officials estimated some 25,000 people were joining the strike, out of 420,000 total transport workers in South Korea.

The transport ministry said 6,700 people attended on Friday in about 160 locations nationwide, down from 9,600 people on Thursday.

“The public will not tolerate taking the logistics system hostage in the face of a national crisis,” Mr Yoon wrote on Facebook late on Thursday, after saying exports were key to overcoming economic instability and financial market volatility.

“If the irresponsible denial of transport continues, the government will have no choice but to review a number of measures, including a work start order.”

According to South Korean law, during a serious disruption to transportation, the government may issue such an order to force transport workers back to their jobs. Failure to comply is punishable by up to three years of jail, or a fine of up to 30 million won (S$31,000).

Were the government to take this option, it would be the first time in South Korean history that such an order is issued. 

The strike comes after South Korea saw October exports fall the most in 26 months as its trade deficit persisted for a seventh month, underlining the slowdown in its export-driven economy. 

Amid the economic gloom, Mr Yoon’s approval rating remained mostly flat for the fifth week at 30 per cent, according to Gallup Korea on Friday, although his focus on economic affairs received a positive response. 

Outside the container depot at transport hub Uiwang, dozens of unionised truckers have set up camp in white tents, watched by patrolling police. The strike has been peaceful so far.

“We are going to pour in everything, resources and money, and execute every strategy we have,” said Mr Lee Young-jo, director-general at the Seoul metropolitan chapter of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU).

“We are desperate, but the government and politicians are calculating their political gains and not sincerely hearing us.”

Apart from existing funds, the union will collect emergency funds from its members if the strike is prolonged, he said.

As opposed to the previous walkout in June that was focused on hampering transport of containers, cement and cars, the union planned to expand its targets and disrupt supplies of groceries and fuel, Mr Lee said.

The head of the union, Mr Lee Bong-ju, said the truckers had no choice but to strike after the government stalled negotiations.

“The Yoon Suk-yeol government is threatening a hardline response without any efforts to stop the strike,” he told reporters on Thursday.

On the first day of the strike, the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) received 19 reports of cases of disrupted logistics. These included inability to bring in raw materials, higher logistics costs and delivery delays leading to penalties, and trade with overseas buyers being scrapped.

In one instance, raw materials for a chemical company were delivered under police protection after the transport vehicle was blocked by striking truckers from entering a factory, KITA said.

Container traffic at ports had dropped to 28 per cent of normal levels as at 5pm on Friday, the transport ministry said, down from 49 per cent of normal levels in the morning.

The cement industry suffered an output loss of an estimated 19 billion won on Thursday, lobby group Korea Cement Association said, after shipments slumped to less than 10,000 tonnes due to the strike. This compares with South Korea’s 200,000 tonnes of cement demand per day in the peak season between September and early December.

Construction sites are at risk of running out of building materials after the weekend.

The industry ministry said the steel sector also saw shipments drop on Thursday. POSCO, the country’s largest steelmaker, declined to comment on the extent.

Meanwhile, workers at Hyundai Motor’s Ulsan factory on Friday drove about 1,000 new cars to customers directly, after delivering about 50 cars the previous day, a representative of a separate union at the factory said. So far, there was no impact on auto output, the official added.

Drivers recruited by Hyundai Motor’s logistics affiliate Hyundai Glovis also began delivering some Kia Corp cars by driving them directly from Kia’s Gwangju plant to customers, a Kia official said. The official did not say how many Kia cars would be delivered directly to buyers. REUTERS

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