Striking truckers say they are not to blame

Not budging: Truckers park outside the Uiwang container depot near Seoul. The union strike is having a massive impact on ordinary South Koreans as it comes amid record inflation in the country. — Reuters

SEOUL: Inside five white tents outside the Uiwang container depot near Seoul, about 200 striking truckers huddle around gas heaters, trying to fight the bitter cold and the government narrative that they are well-paid “labour aristocracy.”

They are all too aware of the impact their strike has had on South Koreans at a time of record inflation. But these drivers and 10s of thousands of others striking across the country say their calls for stronger minimum pay protections are all that stand between them and poverty.

“We are not the enemy. We are loyal to our country, because we are contributing to exports,” said Kim Young-chan, a 63-year-old container truck driver transporting exports such as home appliances and cosmetics between Uiwang and Busan port.

“Our money is stretched to eat and live for a month. Labour aristocracy? That is nonsense.”

Amid soaring fuel costs, as many as 25,000 truckers are calling on the government for a permanent minimum pay system known as the “Safe Freight Rate”, which was introduced temporarily in 2020 for a small portion of the more than 400,000 truckers.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has said his administration would not give in to what it calls “unjustified demands” by the truckers union as the second major strike in less than six months disrupts supplies of cars, cement and fuel.

The interior minister and a spokesperson for the ruling party have both called the truckers “labour aristocracy”.

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

Kim said high diesel prices mean their lives are no better than in June, when they went on an eight-day strike. He earns about three million won (US$2,300 or RM10,085) per month, far less than last year because diesel prices have nearly doubled.

The country’s consumer prices also jumped 5% in November, compared with a year earlier.

Kim said it broke his heart that his wife, who is past retirement age, must work to support the family, mopping floors and cooking for pay.

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

The government and the union have sat down for talks twice but remain far apart on two key issues. One is extending the minimum pay rules beyond the end of this year, and the second is expanding them to benefit more truckers.

The government has specifically said it will not expand minimum pay protection to truckers in the fuel and steel industries, saying they are already well paid.

Concerns are growing about fuel shortages and higher grocery prices, which are causing economic hardship.

Lee Ji-eun, 36, a physician and mother of two, said she hurried to top up her car last Thursday over fears of a shortage.

“I want the government and the truckers to reach a deal as soon as possible. Strikes like this or by subway workers or public officials - the damage is done straight to ordinary people like me,” she said.

Early in the strike, near a major oil storage facility that supplies petrol stations in Seoul, a dozen striking tanker drivers had positioned their trucks to hamper traffic. Last Thursday, they stopped after residents complained.

“I know people are getting cold about this strike, and they are like, ‘Why again?’” said Ham Sang-jun, 49, a driver transporting oil from top refiner S-Oil Corp to petrol stations.

As of last Friday, 60 petrol stations had run dry, the industry ministry said. Petrol stations nationwide had an average of about a week’s supply, as they secured stock before the strike.

Along with Ham, about 90% of the 340 tanker drivers contracted to supply S-Oil’s products have walked off the job, according to Lee Geum-sang, their union leader.

Their families worry they will lose their jobs.

Ham, the father of two teenagers, earns about three to four million won (RM10,131 to RM13,508) a month working 12 hours a day, five days a week, often overnight and on weekends. That is two million won (RM6,754) less than last year because of fuel costs.

“I am sorry for my wife and children, because I am not a good father,” he said. “But we have to keep up the strike for a better future 10 years ahead.” — Reuters

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