By Wolsan Liem, Director of International and Korean Peninsula Affairs of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU)

On October 10 at 12am, South Korean truck drivers, members of the Korean Public Services and Transport Workers’ Union Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division (KPTU-TruckSol) began a national strike against the South Korean government’s plan for deregulation of the trucking transport market. The strike began as the strike of KPTU-affiliated railway and other public institution workers went into its fourteenth day.

 

Government Crackdown

Considerable tension has surrounded the dispute since TruckSol announced its intention to strike at a press conference on October 5. The government, stressing concerns about the combined impact of the truck and rail actions on freight transport, has announced plans for a stern crackdown. Measures include suspension of fuel subsidies for those who participate in the strike, as well as cancellation of drivers’ licenses and criminal charges for those who participate in or instigate ‘illegal actions’ such as blocking logistics hubs.

At the beginning of the day on October 10, some 6000 police were stationed near the Busan Port and at the Inland Container Deport in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province. Only several hours after the strike began, the police swarmed protesting drivers at a rally at the Busan New Port. Three TruckSol members were arrested and two injured. Several more members were arrested later that evening.

The stern government response to the truck drivers’ strike comes in part because of their potential power and in part because of their precarious status as independent contractors. As ‘owner drivers’ or (‘specially-employed’ workers in Korean terminology), truck drivers are treated as independent contractors, not workers, and therefore denied the rights to form and join trade unions, collectively bargain and strike. Therefore, while KPTU accepts it as a full affiliate, TruckSol is not recognised as a legal union by the Korean government or employers.

 

The Conditions of ‘Owner Drivers’

Since last year, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and its affiliates have been fighting against a set of reforms that would make it easy for employers to fire workers, lower wages and restrict unions’ ability to bargain for their members. Public sector workers are currently in their third week of a national strike against the introduction of a performance-related pay and termination system. Although TruckSol members have participated in KCTU and KPTU actions, the demands are not entirely applicable to their situation. This is because they have never had job security, guaranteed wages or bargaining rights to lose in the first place.

Truck drivers are paid not a wage, but a ‘transport rate’ based on the cargo they haul and the distance they travel. Rates are set by large corporations who ship goods and subcontract the transport task to logistics intermediaries and transport companies down the supply chain. These intermediaries then re-contract the work to drivers. After intermediaries take their piece of that rate, truck drivers are left with what is often equivalent to less than the minimum wage. Truck drivers are now striking against a plan by the government that will allow for an oversupply of trucks, leading to competition and pushing rates down even further.

Low rates and demands of the companies at the top of the transport supply chain mean that truck drivers often feel forced into overloading, speeding and driving inhumanely long hours, just to be able to feed their families. These circumstances are harmful for truck drivers’ health and hazardous to the public at large. Nearly 1,200 people die on Korean roads as a result of truck crashes every year, an average of 3.2 people a day. A major concern for TruckSol is that truck drivers’ basic rights be guaranteed and that cargo owners and transport companies be required to enable drivers to work without the pressure to engage in unsafe driving practices.

 

Solidarity to Demand Safety before Profits

The truck drivers’ demands, although very different, do overlap with those of their relatively well-paid permanently-employed fellow transport workers in the rail industry. Both groups are fighting against unilaterally-imposed government policies that seek to increase competition among workers and put the goals of efficiency and profits before respect for human life and safety.

It remains to be seen how much their strikes will affect the economy. The government has brought in 800 replacement trucks and continues to hire new replacement rail workers to keep freight in circulation. Slowdowns have been minimal so far.

If the truck strike continues for several days, however, the impact is likely to grow. Moreover, if the action results in increased awareness about the dangers of the government’s policies, not only to workers but to the broader public, its social impact will be significant. And if it builds lasting solidarity between the low-paid ‘specially-employed’ truck drivers and the higher-paid permanently-employed public institution workers, this in itself will be an important victory.

 

By Wolsan Liem, Director of International and Korean Peninsula Affairs of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU)

 

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