Striking South Korean Truck Drivers Return to Work After 16 Days

South Korean truck drivers end strike
Container volumes are returning to normal at South Korea's ports after the truck drivers ended their strike (file photo)

Published Dec 9, 2022 12:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

Activity at South Korea’s main ports returned to normal on Friday as the striking truck drivers called off their 16-day strike despite not achieving any significant concessions from the government. The strike collapsed under growing pressure from the government and disagreement within the union ranks.

One of the truck drivers’ unions started the walkout on November 24 impacting key industries including cement, steel, and fuel oil/petrochemicals as well as the movement of containers at the key seaports. It was the resumption of a strike that originally started in June 2022 calling for rate guarantees and better working conditions for the drivers. 

The unionized drivers were demanding that the government agree to make permanent the Safe Trucking Freight Rates System which was introduced in 2020 but is due to expire at the end of this year. It sets minimum freight rates for drivers in the covered industries. In addition to making the system permanent, the drivers were calling for it to be expanded to more sectors covering additional drivers hauling other products. Additional unions joined the strike while South Korea’s labor organization also demonstrated in support of the striking truck drivers.

The walkout was causing widespread disruptions in South Korea’s internal supply chain with government reports estimating it had cost the steel and petrochemical industries nearly $1 billion due to delayed shipments. Port officials said that container volume was running between 10 and 25 percent of normal levels.

With widespread disruptions in the construction industry, the government initially ordered the cement truck drivers to return to work on November 29. On Thursday, December 8, the government extended the back-to-work orders to drivers in the steel and petrochemical industries while continuing its hardline stance against the union demands.

Union leaders met in an emergency meeting on Thursday but disagreed over continuing the strike or returning to work. This came as reports grew of drivers abandoning the picket lines and returning to work. Today, December 9, the union put the strike to a vote but only a small faction of members voted. Nearly two-thirds that did vote were in favor of returning to work, with union leaders saying they would disband the strike. They however vowed to continue to fight for their demands.

The government had previously said it would support a limited three-year extension of the rate system. The main government opposition party on Friday voted to support the three-year extension. The ruling government party however did not vote on the extension. They said it requires additional discussions only after the drivers have returned to work.

The government said the strike threatened to cause significant damage to the economy. After word of the union vote to return to work, government officials however vowed to pursue further talks aimed at securing jobs for younger generations, improving the structure of the labor market, and the relationship between management and workers.