South Korea truckers strike again with auto, battery supply chains at risk

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Unions says 22,000 truckers attend rallies, ministry
estimates
9,600

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Strike in June cost more than $1.2 bln in lost output

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Truckers chant ‘We stop, the world will stop!’

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Minister warns of ‘strict crack’ if trucks obstruct police

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Sectors from autos to petrochemicals could be disrupted

(Adds details and comment from truckers’ rally)

UIWANG, South Korea, Nov 24 (Reuters) – Unionised
truckers in South Korea kicked off their second major strike in
less than six months on Thursday, threatening to disrupt
manufacturing and fuel supplies for industries from autos to
petrochemicals in the world’s 10th-largest economy.

With fuel costs soaring, the truckers are calling on the
government to make permanent a minimum-pay system known as the
‘Safe Freight Rate’ that is due to expire by the end of the
year, and to expand benefits for truckers in other industries,
including oil tankers.

The government has said it will extend the scheme for three
years but rejected other union demands. In June, an eight-day,
non-violent strike by truckers delayed cargo shipments across
Asia’s fourth-largest economy, costing more than $1.2 billion in
lost output and unmet deliveries before it ended with each side
claiming it won concessions.

The organising union kicked off 16 rallies across the
country on Thursday morning, including at a port in Ulsan that
houses Hyundai Motor’s main manufacturing plant. The
union estimated some 22,000 took part in the rallies, while the
transport ministry said about 9,600 people attended, and there
were no clashes with police monitoring events.

As a noisy rally got under way at transport hub Uiwang, 25
kilometres (15 miles) south of Seoul, hundreds of truckers
marched around the depot – watched by a heavy police presence –
carrying banners and wearing headbands with the slogan “Unite
Fight”. They chanted, “We stop, the world will stop!” and “Let’s
stop driving to change the world!”.

Union officials said about a thousand truckers gathered at
the rally, where the head of the union’s Seoul metropolitan area
branch, Lee Kwang-jae, told them to take up key positions to try
to block any attempts to make shipments. One person leading the
protesters called out to a container truck making for a depot,
“Don’t embarrass yourself by working. Join us!”

They planned to split in two groups, with half staying at
Uiwang and the other half heading to Pyeongtaek, about 44
kilometres (27 miles) away, which is close to ports serving
China.

At Busan, South Korea’s biggest port, police officers and
buses were seen lined up along key routes.

Lead organiser the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU)
has warned the strike could stop oil supplies at major
refineries and transport at major ports and industrial plants.
The union has said almost all of CTSU’s 25,000 members, about
6% of the country’s truck drivers, will take part in the strike,
joined by an unspecified number of non-union members.

“We have no choice but to stop all logistics in Korea,” said
Lee Bong-ju, head of the union, on Thursday.

‘CRACK DOWN’

Earlier this week, Transport Minister Won Hee-ryong said the
Safe Freight Rate system had not been proven to improve the
safety of truckers but to only raise their incomes, a reason why
the government has refused to expand the scope of the
scheme.

“The government and the ruling party misled, and openly
defended capital saying that truckers’ income levels were not
low – and that if the Safe Freight Rate system were expanded,
prices could rise due to increased logistics costs,” Lee said.

The union is asking the government to ensure big businesses
are held accountable if they violate the minimum wages rule.

“Frontline truck drivers should not be sympathetic to
unjustified collective action. We will strictly crack down on
truck drivers’ obstruction with the police so that safe
transportation can be ensured,” Transport Minister Won said on
Thursday.

Industry giants including Hyundai Motor and steelmaker POSCO
were forced to cut output by the June strike, and
POSCO has warned that fresh action could slow repair works at a
major plant hit by floods this summer.

“If the cargo union strike continues, it will put too much
of a burden on not only major industries, but also people’s
livelihoods and the national economy,” said Prime Minister Han
Duck-soo on Thursday.

Companies such as Hyundai Steel, petrochemical
firms and a battery maker told Reuters that because the strike
was expected, urgent contract volumes were shipped out and
necessary raw materials were prepared in advance. However,
limits in storage space and logistics would make the strike
problematic if it lasted.

A Hyundai Steel spokesperson said its daily shipment of
about 8,000 tonnes of steel products at its Pohang factory could
not be moved on Thursday due to the strike.

The government is deploying alternatives such as
military-run container transport vehicles and considering
securing more storage space in case cargoes pile up. Some
industry officials noted that military vehicles may not be
equipped to carry products such as steel or fresh produce.

The Korea Oil Station Association is asking gas station
owners to secure enough inventory ahead of the strike, an
association official said earlier, while charging stations for
hydrogen-powered cars have put up signs warning that supply
could be cut.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park and Heekyong Yang; Additional
reporting by Joyce Lee and Soo-hyang Choi; Editing by Catherine
Evans and Kenneth Maxwell)

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