Resisting Labour Degradation in Korea

On April 8, 4,500 truck drivers – members of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division (KPTU-TruckSol) – rallied in Yeouido, Seoul, before the National Assembly. It was the first mass rally held by the union since an intensive crackdown by the conservative Yoon Seok-yeol government broke the union’s national strike action at the end of 2022.

The protest took place against the backdrop of a continued anti-union attack. Since last year the government has been charging individual union officers and raided union offices based on claims of ties to North Korea and begun to dig into union finances claiming corruption and misuse of government funds. It has also charged dozens of Korean Construction Workers’ Union (KCWU) officers with cartel activities and coercion concerning collective bargaining and industrial action. 

During the rally, KPTU-TruckSol leaders and members made public commitments to rebuild their united front and reignite the struggle they were engaged in all last year.


Strike for Labour Protections 


The truck drivers’ main demand is reinstitute the Safe Trucking Freight Rates (Safe Rates) system.  South Korea’s Safe Rates system provided a mechanism to establish legally-binding minimum rates of pay and related minimum labour protections for (formally self-employed) owner truck drivers in order to improve their standard of living and road safety. 

Extensive research demonstrates that if truck drivers are paid for all the time they work at a reasonable rate, it will alleviate pressures to work overly long hours while fatigued, overload vehicles, speed, skip maintenance, and engage in other unsafe behaviours, reducing accidents and making the road safer for everyone. This logic underpins Safe Rates in Korea and other countries where the system exists

Importantly, the Korean system legally obligated the companies who contract for transport services (called cargo owners, clients, or transport buyers in different contexts) to pay transport companies enough to ensure that they can comply with drivers’ minimum pay.

This system was beginning to impact South Korea’s road transport industry positively. However, it was introduced with a sunset clause in the legislation, meaning the system was scheduled to terminate at the end of 2022 without legal reform. 

Amid rising fuel prices and cost of living, along with growing public recognition of the need to address the economic pressures that induce dangerous driving, KPTU-TruckSol members engaged in two national strike actions in 2022, calling for Safe Rates to be continued and covered expanded to more sectors, the first from June 7 to 14 and the second from November 24 to December 9. As Asian Labour Review reported, the crackdown on the second strike was particularly intense and has continued since the end of the strike. 

While no agreement with the government was reached on December 9, taken as a whole, KPTU-TruckSol’s industrial actions and the broader campaign resulted in three promises made by the government and/or ruling party to maintain the system: one at the end of the strike in June, another right before the beginning of the strike in November, and the last following the end of the strike on December 22. 

However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that the government and the ruling party never intended to solve these problems. In the end, legislation to extend the system never made it to a plenary vote in the National Assembly, and the system formally ceased to exist on December 31, 2022. 


Deregulation Drive


Since the end of last year, the Yoon government has attempted to break KPTU-TruckSol’s industrial power not only through union repression but also through further deregulation of the road transport industry. In addition to improving conditions for truck drivers and road safety, the Safe Rates system created an important opportunity for KPTU-TruckSol to increase its membership and bargaining power, an opportunity that the union used effectively.

During the three years Safe Rates was in effect, membership increased 2 or 3-fold in the sectors covered by the system. KPTU-TruckSol also won multi-company agreements with transport companies and client companies that contract for road transport services on the local level. Government representatives have explicitly stated that fear of increased union power was a reason for refusing to extend the system in its current form.  

With legislation for the revival of Safe Rates tabled in the National Assembly by the Democratic, the government and ruling People Power Party have proposed their counter legislation.

The ruling party’s bill proposes a ‘Standard Rates’ system to replace Safe Rates (‘Standard Rates’). This proposal strengthens government control, removes obligations on clients, and weakens penalty clauses so much so that the system would be almost impossible to enforce. Most people in the labour movement agree this is not an acceptable replacement. 

Moreover, the bill fundamentally seeks to lower freight rates to an unsustainable level and increase competition by removing controls on the number of commercial licence plates. This would destroy KPTU-TruckSol’s bargaining power and exacerbate the competitive pressures on truck drivers that make the roads unsafe.  


A Difficult Road Ahead


During the rally on April 8, KPTU-TruckSol made a clear demand for a revival of the Safe Rates system without adulteration, calling on the Democratic Party to use their majority in the National Assembly to fast-track their legislation and pass it in plenary. 

While this strategy is legally possible, however, it is not likely to lead to the reinstatement of the Safe Rates system immediately. Yoon Seok-yeol has vowed to veto the bill should it pass in this manner.

Moreover, another part of the government’s proposed legislation has caused some confusion among truck drivers. Self-employed truck drivers struggle daily with the existence of the ji-ib (meaning roughly ‘bring-in’) system. Under this system, truck owner drivers ‘bring’ their own trucks into the market but must register them through trucking companies who own the commercial licence plates for a fee.  

The system increases truck drivers’ dependency on the trucking companies with which they contract, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The government’s bill proposes minor improvements to the ji-ib system, which means truck drivers who do not have access to accurate information could be tricked into supporting it. 

Recognising the importance of this issue to members and non-members, KPTU-TruckSol has now brought it to the fore. At the April 8 rally, the demand for the abolition of the ji-ib system also took centre stage alongside the demand for the reintroduction of Safe Rates. 

With the two major parties at war with one another and the government continuing to target unions, KPTU-TruckSol’s fight for universal Safe Rates will likely face significant challenges. 

During this time, it will be important not to lose sight of the need for on-the-ground organising and to develop strategies to win safe rates through local struggles and negotiations with transport companies and clients. If this can be done, it will create a basis upon which the legal system can be reintroduced in the future.

(Photo: Wol-san Liem)


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.