‘We are not your enemy’, say South Korean truckers striking for minimum wage protections

UIWANG, South Korea (Reuters) – In five white tents outside the Uiwang container depot near Seoul, about 200 striking truck drivers huddle around gas heaters, trying to beat the bitter cold and the government’s narrative that they are well-paid ” labor aristocracy’.

Striking South Korean union tank drivers Lee Gum-sang and Ham Sang-jun pose in front of tanker trucks as they take part in a nationwide demonstration outside a major oil storage facility in Seongnam, south of Seoul, South Korea, December 1, 2022. REUTERS/ Ju-min Park

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 tens of thousands of other strikers across the country say their calls for stronger minimum wage protections are all that stands between them and 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 driver of a container ship carrying exports such as home appliances and cosmetics between Uiwang and the port of Busan. “Our money is stretched to eat and live for a month. Labor aristocracy? This is nonsense.”

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Amid rising fuel costs, around 25,000 lorry drivers are calling on the government for a permanent minimum wage system, known as the ‘Safe Freight Rate’, which was introduced temporarily in 2020 for a small proportion of more than 400,000 lorry drivers .

President Yoon Suk-yeol said his administration would not give in to what he called “unjustified demands” from the truckers’ union, as the second major strike in less than six months disrupted supplies of cars, cement and fuel . The interior minister and a spokesman for the ruling party called lorry drivers a “labour aristocracy”.

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

Kim said high diesel prices meant their lives were no better than they were 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 because diesel prices have nearly doubled.

Consumer prices in the country also jumped 5% in November compared to a year earlier.

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Kim said he was heartbroken that his wife, who is over retirement age, had to work to support the family, washing floors and cooking for pay.

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

The government and the union have sat down for talks twice but remain far apart on two key issues: extending minimum wage rules beyond the end of this year and extending them to benefit more truck drivers.

The government has explicitly said it will not extend minimum wage protections to lorry drivers in the fuel and steel industries, saying they are already well paid.

Concerns about gasoline shortages and more expensive groceries are growing, causing economic pain.

Lee Ji-eun, 36, a doctor and mother of two, said she rushed to charge her car on Thursday due to concerns about 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 government workers — that damage goes straight to ordinary people like me,” Lee said.

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At the start of the strike, near a large oil storage facility that supplies gas stations in Seoul, a dozen striking tanker drivers had positioned their trucks to block traffic. On Thursday, they stopped after a complaint from residents.

“I know people are cold about this strike and they’re saying, ‘Why again?'” said Ham Sang-joon, 49, a driver who transports oil from top refinery S-Oil Corp to gas stations.

As of mid-Friday, 60 gas stations had run dry, the industry ministry said. Stations across the country had an average of about a week’s supply as they had stocked up before the strike.

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

Their families are worried about losing their jobs.

Ham, a father of two teenagers, earns about 3 to 4 million won a month, working 12 hours a day, five days a week, often at night and on weekends. That’s 2 million won less than last year because of fuel costs.

“I feel sorry for my wife and children because I’m not a good father,” he said. “But we must continue the strike for a better future 10 years into the future.”

Reporting by Ju-min Park and Minwoo Park; Editing by Jack Kim and Gerry Doyle

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