South Korean truckers say strike is a fight for livelihoods

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Truckers are on strike for the seventh day on Monday, protesting rising fuel prices and demanding minimum wage guarantees.

Kang Myung-gil parked his truck last week and stopped transporting products from a unit of Samsung Electronics and other major South Korean companies to the port of Incheon, joining a strike that has hit the industrial centers and ports.

At stake is his family’s livelihood, Kang said, as soaring fuel prices and other costs prevent him from continuing while big business can pass on the burden by charging higher prices to customers like him.

Kang, 50, said in an interview that he had no choice but to join the strike even though he was not a union member.

“When the other side of the world is better, why does our side of the world back down and get worse?” He asked.

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Truckers are on strike for the seventh day on Monday, protesting rising fuel prices and demanding minimum wage guarantees.

The action crippled ports and cargo terminals in South Korea – a major supplier of automobiles, batteries, semiconductors, smartphones and electronics – further stretching global supply chains already disrupted by China’s COVID-19 restrictions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Working up to 15 hours a day, Kang, a father of three, says he earns around $2,300 a month. Since April, his monthly fuel bill has jumped about $1,000.

He borrowed from his in-laws to pay the interest on his loans and says the monthly income of $800 from his wife’s part-time job at a nursery is not enough to raise three children.

Truckers’ demands relate to the extension of a 2020 measure called the Safe Trucking Freight Rate, which guarantees a minimum wage and expires this year.

The union says the measure is crucial to ensuring truckers work in sustainable conditions. As independent contractors, they say it protects against fluctuating fuel prices and exploitation by powerful corporations.

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President Yoon Suk-yeol’s new government does not control parliament and says it is up to truckers to broker a deal with bosses and the opposition to extend minimum wage guarantees.

“The most frustrating thing is that I followed all the rules, like installing low-emission equipment, even paying more money if I needed it. But why is the situation torturing me- her now and why would I let things be taken away from me?” Kang said.

In 2019, he was paid 280,000 won for a 240 km (149 mile) round trip from Incheon to a Samsung billboard factory in Asan, though other truckers hired by level contractors superior were paid 320,000 won for the same trip.

Under the minimum rate system introduced in 2020, the freight rate increased to about 350,000 won for all truckers, including non-union drivers.

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The price of diesel at the gas pump was 1,960 won per liter in May 2022, up from 1,340 won a year earlier, a jump of 46%. The urea solution, mandatory for diesel vehicles, has doubled in price since a supply crisis in November, drivers say.

While the strike has been largely peaceful, tension is mounting as truckers run out of funds to sustain their industrial action.

Truck driver Park Kyung-soo said drivers are fighting for fairness.

“We are not beggars. We want our message to be heard for that fair share,” Park, 55, said as he took turns cooking in a truck for fellow drivers in Incheon.

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(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Jack Kim and Stephen Coates)

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