SEOUL, South Korea -- Thousands of South Korean truckers are returning to work after voting Friday to end their 16-day walkout that disrupted construction and other domestic industries.
Thousands of truckers seeking financial protections as fuel prices rise went on strike Nov. 24. The government took aggressive steps to minimize interruptions such as by widening back-to-work orders on truckers and mobilizing military vehicles to ease delays in industrial shipments.
About 3,600 of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity union's 26,000 members participated in Friday’s vote, and about 62% of them voted in favor of ending the strike and returning to work. The union, which was striking to demand the government make permanent a minimum freight rate system that is set to expire at the end of 2022, said it will continue fighting for minimum fares it says are crucial for drivers’ safety and financial stability in the face of rising fuel costs.
The vote came a day after the government widened its contentious “work start” orders to some 10,000 drivers transporting steel and petrochemicals, insisting that the strike could inflict deep scars on the economy if it were prolonged. The order was first issued on some 2,500 cement truck drivers on Nov. 29 in response to shipment delays at construction sites.
The low turnout in the truckers’ vote possibly reflected their disappointment in the strike’s waning impact as well as the strain on their personal finances. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said container traffic at major points and cement deliveries at construction sites were exceeding prestrike levels as of 10 a.m. Friday, reflecting the impact of the government's steps and the increasing number of truckers abiding by the “work start” orders.
The impact of the strike was mostly limited to domestic industries and there were no reports of meaningful disruptions for major export products such as semiconductors.
While the minimum fares currently apply only to shipping containers and cement, the strikers also called for the expansion of benefits to other cargo, including oil and chemical tankers, steel and automobile carriers and package delivery trucks.
The government offered to extend the current system for three more years but has so far rejected calls to widen the scope of minimum rates.
The back-to-work orders 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 ($23,000). The law doesn’t clearly spell out what qualifies as acceptable conditions for a strike and the truckers have said the orders infringe on their basic right of collective action.
Officials say the orders were inevitable because there were concerns that the strike could cause more serious damage to the economy, including export industries such as automobiles and shipbuilding, if it were prolonged. Government officials and police had formed teams to monitor whether the truckers abided by the orders after the office of President Yoon Suk Yeol called for a strict response to the strikers based on "law and principle.”