South Korea’s government will meet with a striking truck drivers’ union for initial talks of a five-day nationwide strike as supply chain problems worsen and construction sites run out of concrete.
The government, which estimates daily losses at about 300 billion won ($224 million) as supplies of cement and fuel for gas stations run out, raised its warning of truck disruption to the highest level.
But the union had little prospect of a breakthrough in its second major strike in less than six months, as thousands of truck drivers demand better wages and working conditions.
“The position of the Ministry of Transport has already been determined and there is no room for negotiation, so this meeting is not a negotiation… the content is a demand for an unconditional return to work,” the union said in a statement on Sunday.
The strike disrupts industrial activity at a time when Asia’s fourth-largest economy, which relies on exports, faces lower-than-expected growth next year, with the central bank cutting its 2023 forecast from 2 .1 percent to 1.7 percent.
“We must establish a rule of law between labor and management,” President Yoon Suk-yeol Yoon said Monday, according to the presidential office.
Yoon, who has criticized the strike as taking the country’s logistics “hostage” in the face of an economic crisis will hold a cabinet meeting on Tuesday to consider ordering truck drivers to return to work, his office said.
The law allows the government to issue such an order during a serious transportation disruption, and failure to comply is punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won ($22,550).
The organizer of the strike, Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU), has criticized the government for being unwilling to extend a minimum wage system beyond another three years, instead of meeting trade union demands to making it permanent and broadening its scope.
Container traffic in ports was 21 percent of normal levels at 10 a.m. Monday, the Transport Ministry said, up from 49 percent on Friday.
The steel industry, including POSCO and Hyundai Steel, saw shipments more than halved to 22,000 tons on Sunday, down from the usual average of 46,000 tons, the transportation ministry said.
Some gas stations could run out of gas and kerosene as early as this week, especially in major cities, despite supplies secured before the strike.
That’s because 70-80 percent of truck drivers for major refineries, such as SK Energy and SK Innovation’s S-Oil Corp, are union members on strike.
As of last week, 259 of 459 construction sites have suspended ready-mix concrete work, the Yonhap news agency said, while the transport ministry said most construction sites were expected to be empty by Tuesday.
The cement industry estimated an accumulated production loss of about 46.4 billion won ($35 million) by Saturday, with shipments up to 9 percent of usual levels, the Korea Cement Association said.
“Non-union owners of bulk cement trucks, who implicitly sympathize with or fear the illegal activities of the cargo union, are stopping transportation of cement,” the lobby group said in a statement.