Through Ju-min Park and Heekyong Yang
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol warned the government could intervene to break a nationwide truck drivers’ strike.
Thousands of unionized truck drivers began their second major strike on Thursday, seeking better wages and working conditions in less than six months. The move is already disrupting supply chains in the world’s tenth largest economy, impacting automakers, the cement industry and steel producers.
Union officials told Reuters there were no ongoing negotiations or dialogue with the government. The country’s transport ministry said on Thursday it had requested dialogue with the union, but the parties have yet to agree on a date.
Union officials estimate that about 25,000 people took part in the strike, out of South Korea’s approximately 420,000 total transport workers. The transportation ministry said about 7,700 people were expected to gather for the strike at 164 locations across the country on Friday, up from 9,600 people on Thursday.
“The public will not tolerate the logistics system being held hostage in the face of a national crisis,” Yoon said in a Facebook post late Thursday, noting that exports were key to overcoming economic instability and financial volatility. markets.
“If the irresponsible denial of transportation continues, the government will have no choice but to review a number of measures, including a work order.”
Under South Korean law, during a major transportation disruption, the government can issue an order to force transportation workers back to work. Failure to comply is punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won ($22,550).
If the government chose this option, it would be the first time in South Korean history that such an order has been issued.
The strike comes after South Korea saw exports fall the most in 26 months in October as the trade deficit persisted for a seventh month, underscoring the slowdown in its export-driven economy.
Amid the economic gloom, Yoon’s approval rating for the fifth week remained broadly flat at 30%, according to Gallup Korea on Friday, though his focus on economics has been positively received.
Outside the gate of the container depot at transportation hub Uiwang, dozens of unionized truckers have camped and spent the night in white tents, watched over by patrolling police, though the strike has been peaceful so far.
“We are going to put everything, resources and money into it and execute whatever strategy we have,” said Lee Young-jo, director general of the Seoul metropolitan branch of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU).
Lee said that apart from existing funds, the union will raise emergency funds from among its members if the strike is extended. “We are desperate, but the government and politicians are calculating their political gain and are not really listening to us,” he said.
Unlike the previous strike in June, which aimed at obstructing the transportation of containers, cement and cars, the union planned to expand their targets and disrupt the supply of food and fuel, Lee said.
The head of the union, Lee Bong-ju, said the truckers had no choice but to strike after the government broke off negotiations.
“Yoon Suk-yeol’s government is threatening a harsh response without any effort 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 logistics disruption. These included the inability to source raw materials, increased logistics costs and delivery delays, leading to fines and the cessation of trade with foreign buyers.
In one case, raw materials for a chemical company were delivered under police protection after the transport vehicle was blocked from entering a factory by striking truck drivers, KITA said.
The cement industry suffered production losses estimated at 19 billion won ($14.26 million) on Thursday, said lobby group Korea Cement Association, after shipments fell to less than 10,000 tons due to the strike.
This compares to South Korea’s 200,000 tons of cement demand per day during the high season between September and early December. Construction sites threaten to run 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 steel producer, 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 from a separate union at the plant told Reuters. So far, there has been no impact on automatic output, the official said.
Drivers recruited by Hyundai Glovis, Hyundai Motor’s logistics affiliate, also began 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 would be delivered directly to buyers.
($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)