SEOUL: South Korea ordered striking truckers in the cement industry to return to work on Tuesday, an unprecedented step that invokes tough strike-busting laws as construction sites run out of building materials nationwide.
The second strike in less than six months over minimum pay is causing daily losses of an estimated 300 billion won ($224 million) and disrupting industrial activity in Asia's fourth-largest economy, which expects growth to slump next year.
“Please return to your positions before it’s too late,“ President Yoon Suk-yeol told a cabinet meeting. “I will firmly establish the rule of law between labour and management during my term and will never compromise with illegality.”
As the strike enters its sixth day, work has halted at more than 250 building sites, or about half of all sites, as supplies of concrete grow scarce, the government said.
The cement industry estimates a cumulative output loss of about 64 billion won ($47.81 million) as of Monday, lobby group Korea Cement Association said.
About 1,000 of roughly 2,500 bulk cement trailers are unionised, it said, but the industry had shipped just a tenth of the usual daily shipments needed for the peak season from September to early December.
Some non-union truckers also halted transport, it added.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Yoon said his government's tough response to strikes this year is starting to establish the rule of law in industrial relations.
That will help eliminate the risk of unfair labour practices, he told Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk in a video telephone call last week.
“MARTIAL LAW FOR CARGO WORKERS”
Yoon administration is the first in the country's history to issue an order forcing striking transport workers back to their jobs.
Failure to comply can lead to punishments such as cancellation of licences and three years in jail or a fine of up to 30 million won ($22,550).
Strike organiser Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU) called the start-work order a “undemocratic and violent” violation of International Labour Organization’s Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, and evidence of the government’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue.
“The start-work order is equivalent to martial law for cargo workers. No, it’s an order to die,“ it said, adding that its demands are meant to safeguard truckers working long hours while earning near minimum wage.
The union plans to hold 16 rallies nationwide on Tuesday.
Government officials will conduct on-site investigations with police, relay the order to the 2,500 cement industry transport workers to return to work, and if they do not comply, suspend their transport licenses for 30 days.
If they still do not comply, licenses can be revoked, and the government can seek prosecution for potential jail time or fines, a transport ministry official told Reuters.
The government is unwilling to expand a minimum pay system beyond a further three years, while the union says it should be permanent and wider in scope.
As the strike continues, container traffic at ports dropped to 33% of normal levels as of 5 p.m. (0800 GMT) on Monday, the transport ministry said. - Reuters