Korean Cargo Truckers, Construction Equipment Operators Prepare for Joint Struggle
On May 29, 2000 cargo truck drivers and construction equipment operators gathered in protest near the National Assembly building in the Yeouido District of Seoul. These workers, officers of the Korean Public Service and Transportation Workers Union (KPTU), Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division and the Korean Construction Workers Union (KCWU) voiced their demands for fundamental changes in their working conditions and declared their determination to fight together until their demands are met. The KPTU cargo truckers and KCWU equipment operators have put forth the following demands: 1) repeal of the tax on gas and decrease of diesel gas prices, 2) increase transport and construction equipment rental rates (i.e. workers’ wages), 3) guarantee of unionization rights, 3) full access to industrial accident insurance and other social benefits.
South Korean cargo truckers and construction equipment operators are brought together by their similar employment form. Both groups of workers are considered ‘self-employed’ or ‘independent operators’ under Korean law. In addition, both groups work at the bottom of multi-layer subcontracting systems. Together, these conditions mean super-exploitation and the denial of basic labor rights.
Technically, cargo truckers and construction equipment operators own the vehicles they drive, which they pay for in installments that come out of their earnings every month. The commercial licenses for these vehicles, however, are held by trucking/construction equipment rental companies, which claim a part of the drivers’ earnings. These small-scale companies, in turn contract with larger transport and construction companies, who in turn contract with still larger companies who make the initial orders for shipment and construction work.
At the top of this system, the manufacturing, logistics and construction subsidiaries of Korea’s massive chaebols (conglomerates) make huge profits, while at the bottom truck drivers and equipment operators receive a pittance. For construction equipment operators, the widespread practice of delayed payments only adds to the burden.
As ‘independent operators’ cargo truckers and construction equipment operators must cover all the costs of gas and repairs. Over the last two years, gas prices have risen 20%, while transport rates for cargo truck drivers have fallen by 2%. Gas prices have soared, not only due to the increase in global oil prices, but also because chaebol oil subsidiaries keep prices high seeking to make a profit, while the South Korean government adds excessive taxes.
In addition, because they are not recognized as workers, cargo truckers and construction equipment operators access to industrial accident insurance and other social benefits is extreme limited. Worse still, they are not afforded the right to unionize under Korean law. This effectively means they are denied the right to collective organizing to fight for improvements in their working conditions.
Clearly, however, these workers have not allowed the denial of their rights in law stop them from proclaiming them in fact and uniting in struggle. Challenging the government’s unjust prohibitions, they have formed their own unions and now determine to demonstrate their collective power. The Korean Construction Workers Union has announced an indefinite general strike to begin on June 27. For their part, the KPTU-Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division has announced they will launch massive protests without forewarning at a similar time. As the two union’s proclaimed at a press conference last month, when this happens, “the flow of goods and construction sites in the Republic of Korea will come to a standstill” and “crises in the logistics and construction sectors will occur.”
The struggle of cargo truck drivers and construction equipment operators is more than a struggle about their own interests. Rather, they are fighting against massive chaebol’s bent on making profits of the backs of workers at every turn, and a government bent on labor repression. As such, their struggle is the struggle of all Korean workers, and of workers everywhere struggling against transnational corporations and the governments’ that support them.