Railway Workers to walk out against Government Plan to Privatize bullet-train Services

The Korean government is pushing ahead with the privatization of the country’s high-speed KTX trains. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs proposed the privatization plan in December 2011. The plan includes allowing a private company to operate two new bullet-train lines, one that connects Suseo in southern Seoul to Busan, and one that connects Suseo to Mokpo, South Jeolla Province. These lines are currently under construction and are scheduled to be complete in 2015.

The government has denied that its policy is real a privatization policy and argues instead that the plan is aimed at bringing competition into the railway sector, which has been monopolized by the state-run railroad operator Korail. It insists that if a private enterprise enters the railroad sector, it will boost the efficiency of railway operation and consequently reduce fares, thus improving the financial soundness of the debt-ridden Korail.

In reality, however, this is just another example of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s “business-friendly” policies, which are designed to provide favors to large corporate groups. Under the proposed plan, the selected private company will be guaranteed a permit to operate a part of the KTX operations for 15 years even though the KTX is the only profit-making business of the deficit-ridden Korail. As such, the new policy would undermine the train’s public purpose and raise train fares. The plan will inevitably result in privatization of the entire system, which will cause poor maintenance and jeopardize passenger safety as private operators will make brining in profits their priority.

The Lee administration originally proposed a policy of full privatization of the railway sector through the establishment of a private holding company. It scrapped this plan, however, after facing severe opposition. Since then, the government has continued to outsource various operations and take steps in the direction of privatization. The government’s plan is a roundabout way to privatize an essential public service and is in line with other pro-business plans to privatize airports and allow for-profit hospitals.

The members of the Korean Railway Workers’ Union endorsed an anti-privatization strike with an approval rate of 86 percent in April. The union has said the timing for the actual strike will depend on the progress of the government’s plan. The government said that unionized rail workers’ recent decision to walk out to resist the proposed partial privatization of KTX bullet-train operations is clearly illegal and should be scrapped. This is an issue that requires continued attention in the future.

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