By Ju-min Park and Heekyong Yang
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has warned the government that he may intervene to break up a nationwide strike by truckers, describing it as an illegal and unacceptable move to take the national service “prisoner” at a time of economic crisis.
Thousands of unionized truck drivers began their second major strike demanding better wages and working conditions in less than six months on Thursday. The move is already disrupting the supply chain of the world’s 10th largest economy, affecting car makers, the cement industry and steel producers.
Union officials told Reuters there were no ongoing negotiations or negotiations with the government. The Department of Transportation said it had requested negotiations with the union on Thursday, but the parties have yet to agree on a date.
Union officials estimate that about 25,000 people have joined the strike, out of about 420,000 total transportation workers in South Korea. The Department of Transport said around 7,700 people are expected to protest on Friday in 164 locations across the country, up from 9,600 on Thursday.
“The public cannot bear to take the transportation system from the country’s problem,” Yoon said in a Facebook message late Thursday, noting that exports are the most important factor in overcoming economic instability and financial market instability.
“If the illegal kicking of vehicles continues, the government will have no choice but to consider a number of measures, including a work order.”
According to South Korean law, during major transportation disruptions the government can issue an order to force workers to return to their jobs. Failure to comply is punishable by up to three years in prison, or a fine of up to ¥30 million ($22,550).
If the government were to take this option, it would be the first time in South Korea’s history that such an order has been issued.
The strike comes after South Korea saw its October exports fall by the most in 26 months as its trade deficit continued for a seventh straight month, underscoring the slowdown in its export-driven economy.
Amid economic difficulties, Yoon’s approval rating remained flat for a fifth week at 30%, according to Gallup Korea on Friday, although his focus on economic issues received a positive response.
‘HARD LINE RESPONSE’
Outside the gate of a container depot in the Uiwang transport hub, scores of unionized truckers camped out and slept in white tents, watched by patrolling police although the protest has so far been peaceful.
“We will pour everything, resources and money, and implement every strategy we have,” said Lee Young-jo, director general of the Seoul city chapter of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU).
Lee said that without the funds available, the union will collect emergency funds from among its members if the strike lasts longer. “We are desperate, but the government and politicians are counting on their political success and we don’t hear them sincerely,” he said.
In contrast to the previous march in June that focused on blocking the transportation of containers, cement and cars, the union planned to expand their targets and disrupt the delivery of groceries and fuel, Lee said.
The head of the union, Lee Bong-ju, said the truckers had no choice but to strike after the government stopped negotiations.
“The Yoon Suk-yeol government is threatening a heavy response despite efforts to stop the protests,” he told reporters on Thursday.
On the first day of the strike, the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) received 19 reports of logistical disruptions. These include the inability to deliver raw materials, high logistics costs and delivery delays resulting in fines and trade with overseas customers being cut off.
On one occasion, materials used at a chemical company were brought under police protection after a transport vehicle was blocked by truck drivers from entering the factory, KITA said.
The cement industry sustained an estimated 19 billion won ($14.26 million) in financial losses on Thursday, lobby group Korea Cement Association said, after shipments dropped to less than 10,000 tons due to the strike.
This compares to South Korea’s 200,000 tonnes of cement per day during the peak period between September and early December. Construction sites are at risk of running out of building materials after the weekend.
The industry minister said the steel sector saw shipments drop on Thursday. POSCO, the country’s largest steel company, declined to comment on the size.
Meanwhile, workers at Hyundai Motor’s Ulsan plant are expected to drive about 1,000 new cars directly to customers on Friday, after delivering about 50 cars on Thursday, a representative of a separate union at the factory told Reuters. So far there is no impact on car production, the official said.
Drivers employed by Hyundai Motor’s Hyundai Glovis have also started delivering some Kia Corp cars by driving them directly from Kia’s Gwangju plant to customers, a Kia official told Reuters.
The official did not say how many Kia cars will be delivered directly to customers.
($1 = 1,332.4700 won)
(Reporting by Ju-min Park, Joyce Lee and Heekyong Yang; Additional reporting by Choonsik Yoo; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Kenneth Maxwell)