(ATTN: CHANGES headline; ADDS gov't plan to impose penalties on non-complying truckers; UPDATES with antitrust regulator's probe attempt in last 5 paras; RESTRUCTURES; TRIMS)
SEOUL, Dec. 2 (Yonhap) -- The transportation ministry said Friday it will start imposing penalties from early next week on striking cement truckers who do not comply with the order to return to work, upping the pressure to end their more than week-long walkout.
Cement truckers will be suspended from work for up to 30 days for the first noncompliance, and lose their license if they don't comply for a second time, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said.
The government made it clear that there is no plan for further negotiations and the truckers must return to work first.
The government issued an executive order on cement truck drivers earlier this week, urging them to resume work or face penalties. It warned it could take the same measure against truckers in the fuel and steel industries.
The government has sent the return-to-work orders to the workplaces of 777 truckers taking part in the strike. The orders have been directly served to 425 truckers via mail, the ministry said.
The government's move came as the strike, which entered its ninth day Friday, is continuing with no breakthrough in sight. Two rounds of negotiations between the two sides fell through.
The truckers went on strike on Nov. 24, demanding the government make a minimum wage scheme permanent. The strike has disrupted shipments of cement and steel supplies across the country.
A major South Korean trade association said Friday it is considering filing a compensation suit against striking truckers over the mounting losses and damage the walkout has caused in the cement and steel industries.
The Korea International Trade Association (KITA) said it is "actively looking into" the option, as the strike, now into its ninth day, has incurred more than 1 trillion won (US$768 million) in damage as the unionized truckers continue to refuse to return to work.
Damage from the strike has so far amounted to 18 billion won a day for the cement sector, with the daily shipments at around 10 percent compared with the average, KITA said.
Steel companies, including top steelmaker POSCO, have suffered around 1.1 trillion won worth of damage so far, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
As of 8 a.m. Friday, 55 gas stations nationwide had run out of fuel. The figure is larger than the previous day's 33 stations facing fuel shortages, the ministry said.
The petrochemical industry's per-day shipments have fallen to 30 percent of the average, which has incurred about 68 billion won in damage every single day.
The ministry said the walkout has cost 442.6 billion won in unmet deliveries and production disruptions for the refining industry, and 319.2 billion won for the auto sector.
In a departure from the previous tough stance, though, the government appears to have delayed the decision to impose additional return-to-work orders for striking fuel tanker and steel truck drivers.
The presidential office was previously expected to convene an extraordinary Cabinet meeting as early as Friday to invoke a back-to-work order on fuel tanker drivers, but the meeting appears to have been pushed back to the weekend or later, as the office is carefully watching signs of recovery in truckers' return rate and road freight volumes.
Since the execution order was issued, the cement shipments have recovered to about 46 percent of the daily average, while the volume of container transportation from major ports recovered to 81 percent of the average, according to government data.
Meanwhile, the Fair Trade Commission vowed stern responses in case union members continue to block its planned on-site probe.
Earlier in the day, dozens of investigators of the antitrust watchdog visited the union's headquarters in Seoul and the southern city of Busan to see if its members were carrying out illegal acts, such as forcing others to join the strike or interfering with their work.
But the investigations were unable to do so after being deterred by union members, the FTC said, warning that such interference would result in imprisonment of up to 3 years or a fine of 200 million won.
"We will react in accordance with law and principles. We will review reporting the case to law enforcement agencies for investigation," FTC chief Han Ki-jeong said.
"We will continue to try to launch on-site probe, and our probe will also be conducted even after the union ends the strike," he added.
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