UIWANG, South Korea, Dec 5 (Reuters) – Inside five white tents outside the Uiwang container depot near Seoul, about 200 striking truckers huddle around gas heaters, trying to fight against the freezing cold and the government’s talk that they are well paid “labour aristocracy.”
They are only too aware of the impact their strike has had on South Koreans at a time of record inflation. But these drivers, and tens of thousands of others on strike across the country, say their calls for tougher minimum wage protections are all that separates them from poverty.
“We are not the enemy. We are loyal to our country because we contribute to exports,” said Kim Young-chan, a 63-year-old container truck driver transporting exports such as household appliances and furniture. cosmetics between Uiwang and the port of Busan. . “Our money is stretched to eat and live for a month. Labor aristocracy? This is nonsense.”
Amid soaring fuel prices, as many as 25,000 truckers are calling on the government for a permanent minimum wage system known as the “Safe Freight Rate”, which was temporarily introduced in 2020 for a small portion of over 400,000 truckers.
President Yoon Suk-yeol has said his administration will not give in to what he calls “unwarranted demands” from the truckers’ union, the second major strike in less than six months disrupting the supply of cars, cement and fuel. Both the interior minister and a ruling party spokesman called the truckers a “labour aristocracy”.
Pale and unshaven, the drivers come out of their tents several times a day to chant slogans and distribute 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 3 million won ($2,300) a month, much less than last year as diesel prices almost doubled.
Consumer prices in the country also jumped 5% in November from a year earlier.
Kim said it broke his heart that his wife, who is past retirement age, has to work to support the family, cleaning floors and cooking for pay.
“Maybe our life can be better if freight rates are stable,” he said.
The government and union have twice sat down for talks but remain far apart on two key issues: extending minimum wage rules beyond the end of this year and extending them to benefit more truckers.
The government has specifically said it will not extend minimum wage protection to truckers in the fuel and steel industries, saying they are already well paid.
Concerns are growing about gasoline shortages and more expensive groceries causing economic hardship.
Lee Ji-eun, 36, a doctor and mother of two, said she rushed to fill up her car on Thursday for fear of a shortage.
“I want the government and the truckers to come to an agreement as soon as possible. Strikes like this or by subway workers or civil servants – this damage is done directly to ordinary people like me,” Lee said.
At the start of the strike, near a major oil storage facility that supplies Seoul’s gas stations, a dozen striking truckers had positioned their trucks to obstruct traffic. On Thursday, they stopped after locals complained.
“I know people are getting cold about this strike, and they’re like, ‘Why again?
By mid-Friday, 60 gas stations were dry, the industry ministry said. Stations across the country had an average of about a week’s supply, as they had secured their stock ahead of the strike. Read more
With Ham, about 90% of the 340 tanker drivers hired to supply S-Oil products have walked out, according to Lee Geum-sang, their union leader.
Their families fear that they will lose their jobs.
Ham, a father of two teenagers, earns about 3-4 million won a month working 12-hour days, five days a week, often at nights and on weekends. This is 2 million won less than last year due to fuel costs.
“I feel sorry for my wife and my children, because I’m not a good father,” he said. “But we must continue the strike for a better future in 10 years.”
Reporting by Ju-min Park and Minwoo Park; Editing by Jack Kim and Gerry Doyle
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