Seoul orders striking truckers in fuel, steel sectors back to work

South Korea on Thursday ordered striking truck drivers in the fuel and steel sectors back to work as a walkout that has caused havoc in Asia’s fourth-largest economy prepares to enter its third week.

The strike, which started on Nov 24 over minimum pay, delayed the supply of goods worth an estimated 3.5 trillion won ($2.65 billion) in its first 12 days, according to Seoul’s trade ministry.

The second major industrial action in less than six months, the walkout has triggered concerns about the impact on global supply chains, already strained by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“At today’s cabinet meeting, the government decided to expand the scope of the order to restart work for transportation deniers to the steel and petrochemical industries,” finance minister Choo Kyung-ho told reporters.

Thursday’s order to around 10,000 drivers comes after Seoul last week ordered striking cement truck drivers back to work, which President Yoon Suk-yeol said was necessary as their action posed a danger to the economy.

Due to the strike, shipments of steel materials were down to about 48 percent compared to normal levels, while petrochemical products were shipping at only 20 percent of normal levels, Choo said.

“Our economy is facing a crisis due to the decrease in exports, inflation, and high interest rates — we have no time and energy to waste on an unnecessary conflict,” Choo told reporters.

Truckers who fail to comply with the order can be punished with jail terms of up to three years or a fine of up to 30 million won ($22,690) and have their licences suspended.

The 25,000-strong Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union told AFP they were working on a statement in response to the government’s decision.

With fuel prices rising, the drivers have been demanding the government make permanent a “safe freight rate” minimum pay scheme, which is set to expire at the end of the year.

The government said last month it would extend the programme for three years but truckers say more of them will become vulnerable to overwork and safety risks without a permanent minimum wage guarantee.

South Korea has one of the highest industrial fatality rates for a rich economy, with more than 4,000 work-related deaths reported from 2020 to last year, according to Seoul’s labour ministry. (AFP)

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