South Korea’s economy is recovering from the initial shock of a nationwide walkout staged by thousands of cargo truckers, even as their strike reached its 14th day on Wednesday amid a stalemate with the government on freight rate issues.
The conservative government of President Yoon Suk Yeol has taken aggressive steps to defuse the impact of the strike, issuing contentious back-to-work orders to more than 2,000 drivers of cement trucks among broader groups of truckers participating in the walkout.
Officials have also mobilised around 200 military vehicles, including container and fuel trucks, to ease the delays in industrial shipments.
Mr Yoon’s office has warned of stronger steps, such as expanding the so-called “work start” orders to broader groups of truckers, including those transporting fuel and steel, blaming the strikers for costing the economy more than 3.5 trillion won (£2.13 billion) in a moment of global uncertainty.
The strike’s impact has so far been mostly limited to domestic industries, such as construction, and there have been no immediate signs of meaningful disruption in major export businesses such as semiconductors.
Container traffic at the country’s major ports were back to 99% of normal levels as of Tuesday afternoon, according to data from the ministry of land, infrastructure and transport.
Shipments of cement were also reaching 88% of normal levels, easing the disruption at construction sites.
The ministry said around 4,400 truckers were actively participating in the strike on Tuesday, down from 8,000 to 10,000 workers who participated during the early days of the strike, which began on November 24.
The strikers, represented by the Cargo Truckers Solidarity union, are demanding the government should make permanent a minimum freight rate system that is to expire at the end of 2022, which they say is crucial for safety and financial stability in the face of rising fuel costs and interest rates.
While the minimum fares currently apply only to shipping containers and cement, the strikers are also calling for the benefits to be expanded to other cargo, including oil and chemical tankers, steel and automobile carriers and package delivery trucks.
Mr Yoon’s government had offered to expand the current scheme for another three years but has so far rejected calls to widen the scope of minimum rates.
Truckers say the system is crucial for their finances and personal safety, saying they would otherwise be forced to increase their deliveries and drive faster to make ends meet.
South Korean labour groups have called for the International Labour Organisation to review whether the order forcing cement truckers back to their jobs breaches their basic rights for collective action.
The order, which was issued last Tuesday, marked the first time a South Korean government exercised its controversial powers under a law revised in 2004 to force truckers back to work.
A failure to comply without “justifiable reason” is punishable by up to three years in jail or a maximum fine of 30 million won (£18,700), and critics say the law infringes on constitutional rights because it clearly does not spell out what would qualify as acceptable conditions for a strike.
The ministry of employment and labour has confirmed that the UN agency sent a letter under the name of Corinne Vargha, its director of international labour standards, asking the South Korean government to clarify its stance over the dispute.
At a regional ILO meeting in Singapore on Wednesday, South Korean deputy labour minister Park Jong-Pil insisted that the back-to-work order was an “inevitable” step, considering its impact on the national economy.
He criticised the workers for “holding hostage the national economy and livelihoods” and that the strike was hurting low-income earners and small businesses the most.