Transport Unions’ Global Strategy for Safety and Solidarity

On September 23, over 1,000 truck drivers from across South Korea rallied in front of the National Assembly building in Seoul. As in other truck driver protests this year, their main purpose was to call on the Yoon Suk Yeol government and the National Assembly to pass legislation to re-introduce Korea’s Safe Rates system. 

This legal system, which brought industry stakeholders together in a Safe Rates Committee to set fair and safe rates of pay and related working conditions for truck drivers (who in Korea are all self-employed), ceased to operate at the end of 2022 when the Yoon Suk Yeol government refused to allow passage of legislation to extend it.

Since then, Korean truck drivers’ pay has plummeted by over 36%, forcing them to work significantly longer hours just to pay the bills. 

Without the basic labour rights guaranteed, Korean truck drivers see ‘Safe Rates’ as the best way to secure their livelihood while making the roads safer. This is why they engaged in massive strike action in 2022 and have been rallying over the last several months for the system’s reintroduction.  

Saturday’s rally, however, had a different flavour than other recent truck driver protests. For one, picket signs and banners were printed in both Korean and English, and speeches were interpreted from the stage. In addition, the flags of several road transport unions from around the world were clearly visible at the rally site, as was a delegation of union representatives from North America, Europe, Africa, and Oceania who sat in the front row together with leaders of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division (KPTU-TruckSol). 

Held by KPTU-TruckSol together with the International Transport Workers’ Union (ITF), Saturday’s rally was one of several events that took place in Seoul and in countries around the world to mark the launch of the ITF’s Global Safe Rates Campaign. During the rally, union leaders from Belgium, Australia, and Uganda condemned the Korean government for abolishing the Safe Rates system and spoke about how Korean Safe Rates and the struggle of Korean truck drivers have inspired their members to fight for Safe Rates in their countries. 

This ITF’s Global Safe Rates Campaign brings together unions from across the globe to demand that governments, road transport employers, and other industry stakeholders support the introduction of legal Safe Rates systems. The systems would set labour standards for road transport drivers, regardless of the form of their employment, enabling safe driving and making the roads safer for all road users. Research by industry experts highlights the correlation between poor pay and conditions for commercial vehicle drivers and poor road safety. Evidence shows that pay increases of 10% can reduce accident rates by 30%.1 

On September 22, the ITF released a Global Statement of Demands signed by 63 unions from 39 countries to launch the campaign. The demands call on governments, transport operators and the large client or shipper companies that rely on road transport drivers to transport their goods to support the introduction of Safe Rates systems, guarantee trade union rights for all drivers, and work with trade unions to ensure transparency and compliance in their supply chains. Unions that have joined the campaign have also committed to working together to raise awareness about the need for Safe Rates and take joint action against governments that stand in the way of positive reforms and repress workers’ rights. 

During the days leading up to and during the campaign launch, unions in the Asia Pacific region took action in line with these commitments. For example, the Shree Kutch General Mazdoor Sangh (SKGMS), a union which organises truck drivers working in the Gujarat Port area on the Western coast of India, organised a drivers’ festival and conference on September 17, a press conference on September 22 and several local rallies and outreach activities to explain the campaign to drivers in the region. 

In Nepal, the Nepal Transport Labour Association (NETWON) handed out flyers explaining the global campaign and its application in Nepal to a broad range of road transport workers, including fuel lorry, bus, and taxi drivers. Transport unions in Indonesia and Pakistan also carried out outreach activities in conjunction with the campaign launch. 

Actions were not confined to the Asia Pacific region. Mass rallies of DHL workers took place across Canada. In Brazil, where a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the Minimum Freight Floors system (Brazilian Safe Rates) has been mounted, truck drivers across the country took videos of themselves explaining their support for the Minimum Freight Floors system and the global campaign. In Africa, unions from Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Côte D’Ivoire and several other countries reached out to workers. They delivered the Safe Rates demands, adapted to their local circumstances, to government bodies and industry stakeholders. 

The unions participating in the ITF’s campaign are quite diverse. Not only are they located in countries of all income levels, but they also represent workers in a wide range of road transport sectors, including trucking, where the Safe Rates system was originally developed, and passenger transport, last-mile delivery, and app-based road transport (food delivery, ride-hailing and parcel delivery). 

During a strategy workshop held in Seoul on September 22 as part of the campaign launch activities, African participants discussed how Safe Rates can be an important strategic avenue for achieving decent pay and conditions and formalising the status of this group of particularly precarious workers. 

The strategy workshop also looked at how to ‘preserve Safe Rates under conservative government’, the main dilemma facing KPTU-TruckSol and Korean truck drivers. Participants from Australia, where a national Safe Rates system was introduced in 2012, only to be abolished in 2016 by the Liberal Turnbull Government, shared their experience during this difficult period with their Korean counterparts.

They stressed that they were able to defend workers’ rights while also building support and power to win new legislation by carrying out coordinated bargaining and strike action, reaching ‘Safe Rates’ agreements with large client companies, and strengthening Safe Rates legal systems on the state level. Legislation for a new national Safe Rates system was tabled in the Australian Parliament on September 4. Australian trade unions are hopeful it will pass at the end of this year or the beginning of next year. 

Speaking from the stage at the rally on September 23, Michael Kaine, the National Secretary of the Australian Transport Workers’ Union, told Korean truck drivers, “When it passes, this new Safe Rates system in Australia will be all-encompassing covering all road transport workers regardless of their form of employment or the type of vehicle they drive and including road transport workers in the gig economy. This is a huge victory for road transport workers across Australia. But it is also your victory. Your fight and the example you have set have given us the strength to come this far.”   

Extended Reading:

Stop the Flow of Goods and Change the World: Korean Truckers Lead Global Campaign on Safe Rates 

  1. Takahiko Kudo and Michael H. Belzer. 2020. “Excessive Work Hours and Hypertension: Evidence from the NIOSH Survey Data.” Safety Science, 129; Michael H. Belzer and Stanley A. Sedo. 2018. “Why Do Long Distance Truck Drivers Work Extremely Long Hours?” The Economic and Labour Relations Review, 29(1), 59–79; Michael H. Belzer, Daniel A. Rodriquez and Stanley A. Sedo, 2002. “Paying for Safety: An Economic Analysis of the Effect of Compensation on Truck Driver Safety.” Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Washington, D.C.; Daniel A. Rodriquez, et al., 2003. “Effects of Truck Driver Wages and Working Conditions on Highway Safety: Case Study,” Transport Research Record, Freight Policy, Economics and Logistics; Truck Transportation (1833), 95-110′ Daniel A. Rodriquez, Felipe Targa, and Michael H. Belzer, 2006. “Pay Incentives and Truck Driver Safety: A Case Study,” Industrial Labour Relations Review, 59(2), 205-225.

Wol-san Liem is based in South Korea and works for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) as Policy and Strategy Coordinator. Before moving into this position, she worked in the external relations and policy departments of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) for over a decade. In this capacity she has worked to strengthen solidarity between Korean workers and the global labour movement. She also held the elected positions of Vice Chair of the ITF Road Transport Section and Vice Chair of the ITF Urban Transport Steering Committee from 2018 to 2023. Before her work with KPTU, she was active in several labour and civil society organisations in both Korea and the United States. She received her BA from Columbia University in 1999 and her PhD from New York University in 2010.