‘We stop, the world will stop’: South Korean truckers’ strike to hit crucial trade routes

South Korea’s unionised truckers kicked off their second major strike in less than six months on Thursday, vowing to “stop driving to change the world”. The strike may disrupt oil supplies at major refineries and transport at major ports and industrial plants. The organising union kicked off 16 rallies across the country on Thursday morning, including at a port in Ulsan that houses Hyundai Motor’s main manufacturing plant.

The lead organiser, the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU), claimed that its 25,000 members, about 6 per cent of the country’s total truckers, will take part in the strike along with an unspecified number of non-union members. 

The noisy rally was underway at the crucial transport hub of Uiwang, about 25 kilometres south of Seoul. The protesters sported the banners and headbands saying, “Unite Fight”, as they chanted, “We stop, the world will stop!”

The protesters reportedly split into two groups, half stayed at Uiwang and the other left for Pyeongtaek, about 44 kilometres away, close to the ports catering to the trade with China.

Why are South Korean truckers protesting?

The truckers, citing inflation and rising fuel costs, are demanding a permanent minimum-pay system known as the ‘Safe Freight Rate’. This minimum-pay system currently exists in temporary form and is set to expire by the end of December 2022. The government has said it will extend the scheme for three years but rejected other union demands. In June, an eight-day, non-violent strike by truckers delayed cargo shipments across world’s 10th-largest economy, costing more than $1.2 billion in lost output and unmet deliveries before it ended with each side claiming it won concessions.

Earlier this week, transport minister Won Hee-ryong said the Safe Freight Rate system had not been proven to improve the safety of truckers but to only raise their incomes, a reason why the government has refused to expand the scope of the scheme. 

“The government and the ruling party misled, and openly defended capital saying that truckers’ income levels were not low – and that if the Safe Freight Rate system were expanded, prices could rise due to increased logistics costs,” Lee said.

The union is asking the government to ensure big businesses are held accountable if they violate the minimum wages rule.

“Frontline truck drivers should not be sympathetic to unjustified collective action. We will strictly crack down on truck drivers’ obstruction with the police so that safe transportation can be ensured,” transport minister Won said on Thursday.

We have no choice: South Korean truckers

The head of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU) told Reuters that South Korean truckers have no choice. 

“We have no choice but to stop all logistics in Korea,” Lee Bong-ju said.

The government is deploying alternatives such as military-run container transport vehicles and considering securing more storage space in case cargoes pile up. Some industry officials noted that military vehicles may not be equipped to carry products such as steel or fresh produce.

The Korea Oil Station Association is asking gas station owners to secure enough inventory ahead of the strike, an association official said earlier, while charging stations for hydrogen-powered cars have put up signs warning that supply could be cut.

(With inputs from agencies)

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