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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 13)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:10 December 13, 2022

Importance of rule of law
Steps needed to improve working conditions of truckers

In an unprecedented setback, unionized truckers voted to end their strike on Friday and returned to work. The decision came 15 days after they started their strike, calling for the permanent implementation of a safe trucking freight rate system, guaranteeing a minimum annual wage for truck drivers. The Cargo Truckers' Solidarity division, which is under the umbrella of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), said that 62 percent of its members voted to end the strike.

The truckers may feel defeated. In contrast, Yoon appears elated by the seemingly triumphant result, buoyed by the jumpstart of his approval rating during the period of the strike. Now the two sides need to cooperate fully to normalize operations in the affected industries. Yet, it seems premature to expect a complete settlement of the situation, as the truckers vowed to continue campaigning for the safe trucking freight rate system.

The government and the union members cannot deflect criticism for the protracted strike, although they could have avoided the dispute through compromise and dialogue. For starters, the striking workers were blamed for engaging in illegal activities -- such as bullying workers who did not participate in the strike and disrupting their truck driving.

They also invited public fury for having caused "astronomical damage" to the national economy with the strike amid concerns of a possible economic recession. They should take responsibility for any illegal actions. The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Energy said it estimates that five of the nation's industries -- steel, petrochemicals, oil refining, cement and automobiles -- incurred some 3.5 trillion won (US$2.68 billion) in losses related to the strike.

The KCTU should also put an end to the outdated practice of politicizing strikes at the expense of the national economy. In fact, Yoon's approval rating has continued to shoot up, seemingly boosted by his tough stance, pledging not to tolerate any illegal activities, while stressing the importance of the rule of law.

It is not appropriate for the Yoon administration to push only hardline approaches to defeat labor unions. For instance, the government issued a return-to-work executive order for the first time in 20 years despite the recommendation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) that doing so would violate conventions protecting workers' freedom of association and the right to organize, as well as guarding against forced labor.

Such measures run counter to international standards respecting the rights of "atypical workers" like freight truckers. The administration should pay heed to the results of a recent survey conducted by Gallup Korea which showed that 51 percent of respondents think that the government has inappropriately handled recent labor issues.

The Yoon administration should not exploit crackdowns on the striking workers to boost Yoon's support rating. An all-or-nothing approach from the administration seeking absolute victory over the opposite side will only trigger severe repercussions, and will not help resolve conflicts.

Now that the strike has ended, the government and political parties should closely cooperate to come up with feasible solutions to the chronic problems truckers face, such as long hours on the road and low pay. The ruling People Power Party (PPP) needs to cooperate with the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) in the latter's bid to pass a bill to extend the safe trucking freight rate system for three more years.

Before the strike, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport already proposed to the union the bill to extend the system, and sent it to the National Assembly for legislation. As the strike ended with major social costs, it is time to derive wisdom from it and explore diverse options to help settle the truckers' problems and prevent further conflicts.

Steps should be taken to improve the outmoded operating system for freight transportation and reduce the hardships truckers face. It is high time for both sides to seek a complete settlement of the dispute through dialogue. To this end, the government should refrain from pushing for punitive measures against the unionized workers.

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