Logistics and transportation workers are among the most militant workers in the world. By exercising their disruptive power to stop the flow of goods and services during strikes, they have the capacity to paralyse whole industries and show immense power. But realizing such power takes determined and sustained efforts.
In South Korea, the cargo truck drivers have been at the forefront of resisting labor degradation under an anti-labor government. Classified as self-employed, the truck drivers in South Korea are not protected by labor laws, and they receive different and inadequate pay rates set by the transport companies. Over the past year, their collective struggle has taken the form of protecting and expanding a system that has guaranteed minimum pay rates and dis-incentivised them from overworking which poses risks to themselves and the public.
The system is called the Safe Trucking Freight Rates System, popularly known as the Safe Rates System. It was introduced in 2020, and set to expire at the end of 2022. Over the course of 2022, the truck drivers staged two massive strikes organized by the cargo truckers’ solidarity division of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers Union (KPTU), or KPTU-TruckSol, an affiliate of the democratic The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). The strikes did not secure the extension of the system, but the union has continued their mobilization. TruckSol is now part of a global campaign for Safe Rates participated by unions in multiple countries in a concerted push for similar systems.
Leading up to the launch of the global campaign on September 22 and 23, we spoke with Gwiran Park, the Director of Strategic Organizing of TruckSol. We discussed the conditions of truck drivers in South Korea, the role of TruckSol in protecting truckers, the importance of the Safe Rates system to the safety of truckers and the public, the building of unity and solidarity among union and non-union truckers through the struggle, and what we may expect from the global campaign.
We would like to thank Wol-san Liem for arranging and interpreting for the interview, with whom we spoke earlier in our podcast about the power of logistics workers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Asian Labour Review (ALR): Can you introduce yourself and your union?
Gwiran Park (GP): My name is Gwiran Park. I’m the Director of Strategic Organizing at the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers Union (KPTU) ‘s cargo truckers’ solidarity division, TruckSol. In South Korea, there are about 450,000 truck drivers. TruckSol is the only union that is organizing this sector. The union was first formed in 2002, and we have been organizing and fighting for the rights of truck drivers for over 20 years.
We have about 25,000 members. Those members drive all sorts of vehicles and work in transporting containers, steel, petrochemicals, and car parts across the distribution and manufacturing sectors. We’ve been fighting to improve the rights of truck drivers through legislative reform or bargaining with companies.
ALR: Is there anything specific you would like to highlight about the work of the union?
GP: I would like to highlight two things. The first is that truck drivers are not recognized as workers or employees in Korea. So, by law, they are classified as self-employed or small business people. This means that legally, none of their fundamental rights, whether it’s trade union rights, like the right to association, collective bargaining and strike, or basic standards, like minimum wage or limits on working time, are protected in law for these workers.
The other thing to highlight is that our members work across the economy in all sorts of primary sectors that are really important to the Korean economy, so our trade union activities also have a wide economic impact.
ALR: We have been inspired by the massive and militant strikes around the Safe Rates system last year. Can you share why this issue is so crucial to truckers?
GP: Let me start by explaining what safe rates are. Because truck drivers in Korea are not recognized as employees, and the rates are not guaranteed, they have very low pay rates. And this then, in turn, forces them into very dangerous work conditions. Because of low and unstable pay rates, they drive for a long time while fatigued, trying to speed or overload their vehicles. It’s not a choice they’re making themselves. They’re being forced into this because they do not have their rights guaranteed and have such low rates of pay.
This doesn’t just affect the drivers’ safety; it also affects the safety of anybody using the roads. It’s clear that you need to guarantee these drivers basic, stable pay rates to create road safety safety for the public. And that’s the logic behind introducing the safe rate system in 2020. It was in place for three years in Korea. The experience of these three years proves that there is a definite safety impact of guaranteeing those basic pay rates for drivers. So things like fatigue, dozing at the wheel, and driving for long hours, all of those things were reduced.
The system also had a positive impact on public safety. That’s why this system is essential not only for drivers but also for the public. This is also why last year, we were striking so hard for the extension and expansion of this system. The importance of this system can be seen by the level of public support that the strikes had, but also the level at which non-union members were participating. So, even non-union members and other drivers recognized the potential of this system. They also supported and participated in this strike, showing you why you know that it has broad support.
ALR: I want to ask more about the role of the non-union workers who also joined the strike. Why did they feel compelled to support the strikes?
GP: The Safe Rates system applies legally across the sectors. That means that it was not just the union members who received the benefits of system, but also non-union members. They recognize that although they may not be union members, the system applies to all drivers. And, they feel that this Safe Rates system is starting to improve business practices and their lives.
Maybe they didn’t all come out to the strike rallies, but they stopped and didn’t drive for one or two weeks during the strike, or they came in and brought food to the striking workers who were camping out.
It creates equality between workers and gives them a common goal, regardless of whether they are union members or not. It creates a level of class solidarity and solidarity across the industry. For that reason, this system is essential to build truck drivers’ unity. During past strikes, you would often see members getting into fights with non-members trying to stop them from driving or transporting, but in this strike, the opposite happened.
ALR: I want to ask your assessment of what the strikes have accomplished or not accomplished (yet).
GP: The ultimate goal of the strikes was to win the extension and expansion of the Safe Rates system. To that end, we didn’t win those things. So it’s hard to evaluate it very positively. Still, several bills to extend the legislation were proposed in the National Assembly during the strikes.
At the same time, during the strikes, we demonstrated the system’s importance for other drivers and the public, so that people now really understand its importance. We build the basis to have a continued public dialogue about this. We were able to win public support and support across different groups of drivers. That process gave us a lot to think about in terms of how to build public support.
ALR: Based on your conversations with the truckers after the strikes, how are they feeling about the ongoing struggle?
GP: On the one hand, through the strike, workers experienced our power in terms of how important they are to the economy and how much they can impact the economy. The traditional chant of the TruckSol is to stop the flow of goods and change the world. Our members learn through this strike that they can stop the flow of goods. This created a sense of empowerment.
On the other hand, there is a sense of defeat because the strike ended without clear success in terms of extending the system and because this conservative government has been so repressive and cracked down on the union.
Those two emotions are sitting there together within the membership. So right now, the union needs to think about how we can build on the positive going forward and what we can do to come back together or reunite and move forward together.
ALR: Since last year’s strikes, the government has further crackdown on the unions. At the same time, there have also been a lot of union mobilizations, most recently the railway workers strike. Can you talk broadly about the conditions for unions right now?
GP: In South Korea, every time there is a conservative government, the first thing they do is crack down on the unions. That happens all the time. But I think a particular characteristic of the current government is that it has spent a lot of time trying to frame unions as interest groups caring only about building their own power. The government completely denied any positive impact of the Safe Rate system and instead spent a lot of time trying to paint union members and the union as if it’s just looking after the interest of a small group of union members.
In moments like this, I think it’s really important that unions, instead of just criticizing the government, should be clear about the fact that we are fighting for the interests of all workers, not just members, and build consensus for those types of fights among members and, and make clear to the public that’s what we stand for.
ALR: Please tell us about the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) global safe rates campaign and why you think this is significant.
GP: This is not the first time that ITF is working on safe rates. Starting in 2018, we had the campaign’s first phase, with certain unions participating and starting to develop the logic about why this system was necessary. We’re formally launching a global campaign, the second phase of our work, on September 22 and 23.
Up to this point, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, and Australia, which have experiences with safe rates, have been working together. Now, in this new phase, many more unions are participating. Many have begun negotiations with their governments, such as New Zealand, to introduce safe rates. But unions in India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda are also part of this new phase.
There are two reasons why the campaign is important. The first reason is that we’ve got to a level where we can start to have strategic discussions about what we want to demand. What are we trying to do to change the industry to make it more sustainable? How can what I’m doing in my country be strategically used to support your campaign in your country? How can we bring this together?
The second thing is from the perspective of Korea, the government continued to say that this system doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, so why should we have it in Korea? This is a lie, of course, but they used not to extend the system. Having this global campaign launched from Korea is to demonstrate that there are other systems like this in other countries. Many unions and other stakeholders around the world are also looking at the Korean system as a model system.
ALR: How can such globally coordinated action strengthen the movement?
GP: Usually, when we see what’s going on in other countries, we think it’s their issue. Maybe we can give a little help, or maybe they have some information we want at that moment. But that’s it. It’s mostly their issue. We’re separate.
But with safe rates, since we have a common goal, in the process of exchange, it’s become clear that what happens in one country directly impacts what happens in another country. So, for example, if Australia had not introduced a safe rate system in 2012, would we have been able to introduce safe rates in South Korea? Probably not. If we hadn’t had a Safe Rates system that proved its effectiveness over the last three years, would there be this many countries now discussing it for their own countries?
By participating in such global work, it’s been possible for us to see how much we’re having an impact on one another. The platform offered through ITF is critical because, without that platform, we wouldn’t be able to bring this many people together and continue to discuss globally.
ALR: Can you tell us about the campaign’s launch events in Korea on September 22 and 23?
GP: On September 22, there will be a Strategy Workshop, followed by a press conference and a rally the next day. For the Strategy Workshop, there will be many unions from different countries coming to participate. Some of them already have a safe rate system, some are in dialogue with the government about it, and some are just starting their campaigns.
The workshop is designed to share where everybody’s at and discuss how we can support one another and how each of those campaigns can move forward. The press conference and rally are about announcing the launch of a global campaign and putting out the message that this Korean safe rate system has been a model for other countries.
ALR: What’s going to happen moving forward beyond this global campaign?
GP: In the long term, legislatively reintroducing the safe rate system is the most important goal. So we will lobby and convince the National Assembly to pass the legislation, but under a conservative government, that’s very difficult.
In the immediate term, after the loss of this system, we’re returning to a state of lawlessness in road transport workplaces. The pay rates are getting cut, and things that drivers were getting paid for, like non-driving working time, are no longer paid. This is leading to more insecurity, more stress and fatigue, as well as overloading and speeding. We have to be able to stop this trend in workplaces, even if we don’t have the legal system in place. We call the safe rates system from the ground up, or safe rates in the workplace.
ALR: Do you have one or two things you want to share about your experience of organizing truckers?
GP: For truckers in South Korea, you can work in the same workplace, and you will have different rates of pay and conditions because there are no legal standards that apply to these workers. Before joining the union, truckers start by thinking the most important thing is just me and increasing my pay as much as possible, regardless of what’s happening to the person next to me.
Joining the union is recognizing that fighting together is more important than what happens to my pay individually. If we fight together, eventually, we can win an increase of 20 or 30%. In the process of organizing, they recognize the importance of fighting together. They created demands that would equalize their wages to create that kind of solidarity.
Another organizing experience related to safe rates is the experience of organizing drivers in petrochemical complexes, which is an integral part of the Korean economy. There is a big complex with many workers, and there was a lot of effort to organize these workers. In 2008, there was a strike in some of these main petrochemical complexes, but they had a serious defeat. The union was weakened in those areas, so much so that the members removed union stickers from their vehicles. Union workers were blacklisted and couldn’t even say they were members. With the introduction of safe rates, there’s a collective goal and demand. It serves as a platform for them to rebuild the union.
These are really important experiences for showing the importance of the Safe Rates system, not only in terms of the immediate impacts of this system in improving the wages and the lives of truck drivers and road safety but also using the system as a platform for building worker solidarity and unity.