Saturday, June 14, 2008

Strike by truckers paralyzes South Korean ports

Strike by truckers paralyzes South Korean ports (IHT)
By Choe Sang-Hun Published: June 13, 2008

SEOUL: More than 11,000 South Korean truck drivers went on strike Friday to protest rising fuel prices, paralyzing ports and cargo terminals and challenging the already unpopular new government of President Lee Myung Bak.

Across Asia, as in the rest of the world, sharp increases in fuel prices continued to stoke public anger Friday. In Malaysia and Thailand, consumers and truckers demanding more fuel subsidies from their governments threatened to strike and Thai fishermen warned that they would burn their boats.

Tension grew around major ports in export-dependent South Korea as striking truckers blocked entrances and the police vowed to escort nonstriking drivers through the blockades. Television broadcasts showed freight yards filled with shipping containers as trucks stood idle.

After small-scale work stoppages in the past week, members of the Korea Cargo Transport Workers Union went on full strike Friday, demanding that the government lower diesel-fuel costs, raise fees for hauling freight and introduce minimum wages for truckers.

"The government intends to use whatever means necessary to end this transportation crisis as soon as possible and minimize its impact on the national economy," Prime Minister Han Seung Soo said.

The disruptions to freight transport have only added to Lee's political troubles. In December he won election with a promise to reinvigorate the slowing economy by achieving a growth rate of 6 percent this year, a task economists now consider overly ambitious in the face of record oil prices and a global slowdown.

In a separate protest Friday, thousands of people rallied in downtown Seoul to denounce Lee's agreement in April to lift the ban on the importation of American beef, continuing a month-long protest that prompted his entire cabinet to offer to resign.

The government recently announced a $9.77 billion package to help people deal with record-breaking oil costs, but that did little to appease the truck drivers.

The government warned that it would arrest drivers if they attempted to block nonstriking truckers from picking up cargo. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs confirmed Friday that it would immediately revoke the annual fuel subsidy payments of about 15 million won, or $14,500, for striking truckers.

"If the government arrests any of the striking truckers, our member unions will immediately launch nationwide strikes," said Lee Seok Haeng, head of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. The labor group has often led crippling labor strikes in auto and other crucial industries. With the traditional season for negotiating under way, unions have seized on the president's unpopularity to increase their leverage.

A two-week strike by truckers in 2003 cost exporters 540 billion won, or $519 million at today's exchange rates, Han said, citing figures from the Korea International Trade Association. He predicted that this strike would cost 128 billion won in export losses a day.

In the ports of Busan in the southeastern tip of South Korea, the number of operating trucks dwindled to 13 percent of normal levels. The Busan ports handle 76 percent of South Korean container traffic.

"We mostly use nonunion trucks, but the problem is that we can't load or unload our cargo because the gates of the terminals are blocked by striking drivers," a spokeswoman at Posco, the leading South Korean steel maker, said, asking not to be identified by name because of company policy.

The government said it would use military vehicles and increase rail service to keep factories running and ease the paralysis at the ports. But rail unions said Friday that they would not cooperate.

The 14,000 unionized truckers represent only 3 percent of total cargo drivers in South Korea, but they handle more than 20 percent of the total container traffic. Unlike in previous strikes, the current walkout has attracted nonunion members fighting for their own livelihood.

"At the current fuel price level, there is no point for me to drive my truck," said Kim Jin Soo, a nonunion truck driver in Busan. "The more I drive, the more money I lose. How am I going to pay my two daughters' college tuition?"

In Europe, tens of thousands of truck drivers struck this week in Spain, Portugal and France to demand government help to cope with fuel costs.

Their protests have paralyzed roads and left supermarkets short of fresh produce and some gas stations without supplies.

In Malaysia, hundreds of people marched through Kuala Lumpur on Friday, demanding that the government reverse a steep hike in fuel prices or step down, in the biggest protest yet against the coalition led by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

"Down with PM, long live the people," the protesters shouted, Reuters reported. Hundreds of police officers in riot gear stood guard, highlighting the uneasy time for Abdullah, who was reeling after a dismal electoral performance in March.

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