[Editorial] Yoon’s historic new lengths to quash trucker strike

Posted on : 2022-11-30 16:58 KST Modified on : 2022-11-30 16:58 KST
Yoon administration’s hard-line tactics are a disaster waiting to happen
(Left) President Yoon Suk-yeol gavels to initiate a Cabinet meeting on Nov. 29 in order to pass a work commencement order that would force striking truckers back to work (courtesy of presidential office). (Right) Lee Bong-ju, president of TruckSol, tightens a union headband after shaving his head in protest of Yoon’s order on Nov. 29. (Kim Myoung-jin/The Hankyoreh)
(Left) President Yoon Suk-yeol gavels to initiate a Cabinet meeting on Nov. 29 in order to pass a work commencement order that would force striking truckers back to work (courtesy of presidential office). (Right) Lee Bong-ju, president of TruckSol, tightens a union headband after shaving his head in protest of Yoon’s order on Nov. 29. (Kim Myoung-jin/The Hankyoreh)

The South Korean government issued the first work start order in its history Tuesday against workers with the Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division (TruckSol), who are currently on a general strike.

Work start orders are a legal procedure that opens up the possibility of criminal punishment. From the workers’ standpoint, it amounts to a declaration of war.

It's also not especially surprising, given how the administration has behaved ever since the TruckSol headquarters of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) declared it would be going on strike. This shows once again that the talk about “dialogue” with the union was really just a formality meant to establish a rationale for hard-line suppression tactics.

The administration reviewed and approved the work start order against striking TruckSol workers during a Cabinet meeting presided over on Tuesday by President Yoon Suk-yeol. As a first step, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) sent the order to roughly 2,500 cement truckers.

The Trucking Transport Business Act states that the minister of land, infrastructure and transport can order the “commencement of business operations” in cases where the refusal of transport service providers and trucking employees to transport cargo “without good cause” results in severe difficulties for cargo transportation.

Refusal to comply with the order without legitimate grounds is punishable by up to three years in prison or up to 30 million won (US$22,740) in fines. Trucking employees could also end up losing their qualifications altogether. It’s a serious enough situation to warrant a heated response from the workers, who have called it a “declaration of martial law.”

Not only are the terms about “without good cause” open to interpretation, but the work start order system has been consistently criticized as unconstitutional for the way it leverages worker livelihoods to negate the right to collective action. It had never been invoked since its introduction in 2004.

Many have also argued that the system violates core International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions banning forced labor. ILO Convention No. 29, which South Korea has ratified, defines “forced or compulsory labour” as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

The administration has shown no interest whatsoever in the situation of transport workers whose safety is threatened. Instead, it keeps laying all the blame on TruckSol, while talking about the South Korean public being “held hostage” and suffering “economic damages.” This attitude shows some real gall.

In June, the administration reached an agreement with TruckSol to continue pursuing a safe rates system for trucking and to discuss expanding the applicable categories. After doing nothing for the five months since then, the administration has finally gone back on its word.

The reason the first labor-government negotiations on Monday proved fruitless is that the administration insisted on not discussing any other options besides a three-year extension of the same rates system with no expansion in categories. In effect, it dictated what response the union could give.

When the Democratic Party moved to present the National Assembly with an amendment to the law reflecting TruckSol’s demands, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Won Hee-ryong dismissed the possibility of it having any effect.

“Even if the Democratic Party passes it, there’s still the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, and the president has veto powers,” he stressed. When the presiding minister approaches things with this kind of attitude, the chances of any kind of “dialogue” are zero.

The only signal we get from the administration is that it wants to use this opportunity to bring the union to its knees. That’s evident from the way it started mentioning the possibility of a work start order from the very first day of the strike.

This may have been in response to criticisms from certain conservatives who accused it of backing down too easily with a strike last June, but it’s still a reckless and irresponsible stance.

These hard-line tactics of refusing to recognize the union as a dialogue partner aren’t just a bad way of trying to fix the situation. They’re a disaster waiting to happen.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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