South Korean subway workers go on strike for the first time since 2016

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(Bloomberg) – Workers at South Korea’s main subway operator have gone on strike for the first time since 2016, further straining a nation troubled by disruption caused by a trucker walkout.

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Unionized staff at the state-run Seoul Subway, which operates subways in the South Korean capital, halted work on Wednesday morning, according to the Seoul Transit Corporation union. They are calling on the government to withdraw its workforce reduction plans and hire more staff to improve safety.

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The walkout comes as South Korea faces supply chain disruptions caused by strikes by truck drivers. This adds pressure on President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is trying to keep the economy on track amid rising living costs and slowing exports.

The impact of the truckers’ strike is spreading as more and more drivers join the protest. With tanker drivers now involved, stocks of gasoline at local service stations are running low, with just eight days remaining as of Tuesday, according to the Department of Energy. Some 24 petrol stations have already run out of petrol or diesel, the ministry said.

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Second-round negotiations between the government and truckers broke down on Wednesday. The union has asked the transport minister to join the talks and withdraw an order asking cement truck drivers to return to work, the union said. Transport Minister Won Hee-ryong phoned several truckers asking them to return to work, the ministry said in a statement, without giving further details.

See also: Korea orders cement truckers to work, citing economic risk

The Seoul Subway Union held a protest in front of City Hall on Wednesday, according to the union’s website. The Seoul Metropolitan Government, however, said subways will operate normally during peak hours, with about one in four services interrupted during the day.

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Generally, strikes by public transport workers cause limited disruption because, by law, a minimum workforce is guaranteed to provide what is considered an essential service.

The Seoul city government hired 13,000 temporary workers to compensate for the loss of staff and rolled out more public buses during peak hours. Subway trains will operate as usual during peak periods while operations will drop to about 72 percent, based on the number of trains running, at other times, the city government said in a statement.

In addition, unionized workers at Korea Railroad Corp. are planning a nationwide strike on December 2, demanding an expanded workforce, better pay and measures to improve employee safety. The strikes at public transport companies come as Yoon’s administration pursues a major restructuring of public companies to improve efficiency.

« We are struggling with a chronic and structural labor shortage, and the government’s restructuring policies are expected to further reduce our workforce, » Kim Seonuk, political secretary of the Korean Railway Workers’ Union, said in an interview. « We have no choice but to strike to negotiate with the government. »

—With the help of Shinhye Kang.

(Updates with details of the truckers’ strike in the 5th paragraph.)


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