SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s government expanded its back-to-work orders Thursday against thousands of cargo truck drivers who are staging a nationwide walkout over freight fare issues, saying a prolonged strike could inflict “deep scars” on the country’s economy.
The “work start” orders on steel and fuel truckers were inevitable because the strike could begin to hurt major export industries like automobiles and shipbuilding if it extends further, Finance Minister Choo Kyung-ho said in a news conference.
The strike’s impact has so far been mostly limited to domestic industries like construction.
The orders, which were initially issued Nov. 29 on some 2,500 cement truckers, were expanded to about 6,000 drivers transporting steel and 4,500 transporting fuel and chemicals. Police are also clamping down on unionists who threaten or disrupt colleagues who choose to work.
The widening of the orders came even as the strike’s impact was diminishing entering its third week, with container traffic at the country’s major ports recovering pre-strike levels and cement supplies resuming at construction sites. The conservative government of President Yoon Suk Yeol has taken aggressive steps to ease delays in industrial shipments such as mobilizing nearly 200 military vehicles, including containers and fuel trucks.
Strikers represented by the Cargo Truckers Solidarity union walked out on Nov. 24, demanding the government make permanent a minimum freight rate system that is set to expire at the end of 2022, which they say is crucial for safety and financial stability in the face of rising fuel costs.
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.
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.
The orders have marked the first time any South Korean government has exercised contentious powers based on a law revised in 2004 that says failure to comply without “justifiable reason” is punishable by up to three years in jail or a maximum fine of 30 million won ($22,800). Critics say the law infringes on constitutional rights because it doesn’t clearly spell out what would qualify as acceptable conditions for a strike.
South Korean labor groups have asked the International Labor Organization to review whether the government order forcing cement truckers back to their jobs breaches basic labor rights.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor has confirmed that the United Nations agency sent a letter under the name of Corinne Vargha, its director of international labor standards, requesting that the South Korean government clarify its stance over the dispute.