(ATTN: ADDS prime minister's remarks in last 6 paras; TRIMS)
By Lee Minji
SEOUL, Nov. 22 (Yonhap) -- The government and the ruling party agreed Tuesday to extend a freight rate system guaranteeing basic wages for truck drivers for three years after unionized truckers threatened to launch a general strike against a planned phase-out of the system.
Members of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity, under the wing of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, had pledged to strike indefinitely starting Thursday, demanding the government extend the Safe Trucking Freight Rates System designed to prevent dangerous driving and guarantee minimum freight rates for truck drivers amid soaring fuel prices.
They called on the government to extend the rate system beyond its scheduled expiration at the end of the year and expand the system, currently applicable to truckers delivering cargo and cement, to more drivers.
In a policy consultation meeting held at the National Assembly, the government and the ruling People Power Party (PPP) agreed to extend the system for another three years but dismiss calls for expanding it.
"Since the system's effect on safety, which was the key goal of its introduction, is unclear, there is a need to further verify it by extending it," Rep. Sung Il-jong, the PPP's chief policymaker, said. "Given high fuel prices and the opinion of stakeholders, we decided to push for extending the system by three years."
Sung said officials agreed not to expand the system to other drivers based on assessment their income is relatively stable and on concerns it may increase logistics costs for the public.
The PPP lawmaker urged unionized truckers to call off their strike and warned against illegal union activities.
"Substantial damage is expected if the Cargo Truckers Solidarity goes on a strike Thursday at a time when the national economy is not good due to high inflation and rate hikes," Sung said, calling on the truckers to withdraw the strike.
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the government it will sternly respond to any illegal activities should the unionized truckers push ahead with the strike.
"We will take all measures to strictly respond to illegal refusal of transportation or obstruction of transportation without any tolerance," Han told a response meeting.
Han also called for unionized truckers to refrain from staging a strike and resolve the issue through dialogue, saying the matter has already been under discussion at the National Assembly.
A nationwide walkout of cargo truckers would have a significant impact on the economy amid concerns about supply disruptions in automobile, steel and other key sectors.
The government will make utmost efforts to minimize damages if truckers go on strike, Han said.
"To minimize logistics disruptions, related ministries will work together to implement emergency transportation measures without any problem," Han added.
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