“We’re not your enemy,” say South Korean truckers striking to protect minimum wages

UIWANG, South Korea, Dec. 5 (Reuters) – Inside five white tents outside the Uiwang container depot near Seoul, about 200 striking truckers huddle around gas heaters, trying to combat the bitter cold and the government’s narrative that they are well-paid “labor aristocrats.” “ be .”

They are all too aware of the impact their strike is having on South Koreans at a time of record inflation. But these drivers, and tens of thousands of others striking across the country, say their calls for stronger minimum wage protections are all that stands between them and poverty.

“We are not the enemy. We are loyal to our country because we contribute to exports,” said Kim Young-chan, a 63-year-old driver of a container truck that transports export goods such as home appliances and cosmetics between Uiwang and Busan Port. “Our money is enough to eat and live for a month. Labor aristocracy? That’s nonsense.”

Faced with rising fuel costs, up to 25,000 truck drivers are demanding the government impose a permanent minimum wage system called the Safe Freight Rate, which was introduced temporarily in 2020 for a small proportion of the more than 400,000 truck drivers.

President Yoon Suk-yeol said his government will not give in to what it calls “unjustified demands” from the truck union as the second major strike in less than six months disrupts supplies of cars, cement and fuel. The interior minister and a spokesman for the ruling party have both described the truckers as a “labour aristocracy”.

Pale and unshaven, the drivers venture out of their tents a few times a day to chant slogans and hand out leaflets.

Kim said high diesel prices mean their lives are no better than they were in June, when they went on an eight-day strike. He earns about 3 million won ($2,300) a month, far less than last year because diesel prices nearly doubled.

The country’s consumer prices also rose 5% year-on-year in November.

Kim said he was heartbroken that his wife, who is past retirement age, has to work to support the family, sweeping floors and cooking for pay.

“Maybe our life can be better if freight rates are stable,” he said.

The government and union have met twice for talks but remain far apart on two key issues: extending minimum wage rules beyond the end of this year and extending them to include more truck drivers.

The government has specifically said it will not extend minimum wage protection to truck drivers in the fuel and steel industries as they are already well paid.

Concerns are mounting over fuel shortages and more expensive groceries causing economic pain.

Lee Ji-eun, 36, a doctor and mother of two, said she rushed to refuel her car on Thursday because she was afraid of running out.

“I want the government and the truckers to reach an agreement as soon as possible. Strikes like this, or by subway workers or officials — that harm is done directly to ordinary people like me,” Lee said.

At the start of the strike, a dozen striking tanker drivers positioned their trucks near a major oil storage facility that supplies gas stations in Seoul to block traffic. They stopped on Thursday after local residents complained.

“I know people are getting cold about this strike and asking, ‘Why again?'” said Ham Sang-jun, 49, a driver who handles oil from top refiner S-Oil Corp (010950.KS). transported to gas stations.

The Ministry of Industry announced that 60 gas stations had run empty by mid-Friday. Stations across the country averaged about a week’s supply, having secured supplies before the strike. Continue reading

Along with Ham, about 90% of the 340 tanker drivers tasked with delivering S-Oil products have left their jobs, according to Lee Geum-sang, their union leader.

Their families fear they will lose their jobs.

Ham, the father of two teenagers, earns about 3-4 million won a month and works 12-hour days, five days a week, often overnight and on weekends. This is 2 million won less than last year because of fuel costs.

“I feel sorry for my wife and children because I’m not a good father,” he said. “But we must continue the strike for a better future in ten years.”

Reporting from Ju-min Park and Minwoo Park; Adaptation by Jack Kim and Gerry Doyle

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *