In June 7th, the Freight Workers’ Alliance set 5 conditions for negotiation and went on strike, with no set end date. The workers and the companies came to the negotiating table in 7 days. The workers’ primary demands were the removal of the 3-year sunsetting clause in the Safe Transportation Act, as well as basic labor rights. The workers managed to win the extension of the Safe Transportation Act, but failed to obtain basic labor rights.
The above is probably known to anyone how has followed the case for any amount of time. What is probably less known, is the actual meaning of any of those words. Did the Freight Workers’ Alliance get too much or too less? Is the economy going to collapse now, or is it actually good for the economy? Why are some people still striking? Therefore, to answer those questions, let’s do a deep dive into this case, and figure out what actually happened.
The Freight Workers’ Alliance is essentially a labor union that represents the freight workers, who are often in a powerless position compared to the companies that hire them. However, they aren’t called a union, but rather an alliance. That’s because even though freight workers are essentially in the same position as any employee, they are treated as private business owners. This fact is related to most things the Freight Workers’ Alliance fights for. As they are not considered employees, the Freight Workers do not enjoy basic labor protections, and they must front the cost for the maintenance and fueling of their vehicles.
There are 2 major reasons the workers went on strike. The first is the ending of the Safe Transportation Act. The Safe Transportation Act is a law that was passed in 2020, that sets minimum prices for a certain amount of cargo over a certain distance. Essentially, it is a form of minimum wage protections for freight workers, which is something Korean workers enjoyed since 1988. However, the Safe Transportation Act was set to be sunset in 3 years. The second is the oil prices. Freight workers must purchase, maintain, and fuel their vehicles on their own dime. Since the workers are paid by distance and weight of the cargo, the current sky-high oil prices threaten the livelihoods of the workers.
As the result of the workers going on strike, they managed to negotiate the removal of the sunsetting clause as well as the discussion for government assistance in fuel prices, but they failed to obtain basic labor rights. Essentially, the workers failed to obtain the recognition that they are employees, and still suffer many of the problems of not being considered one.
However, the workers in payroll of Hite-Jinro kept their strike going. The major reasons are the low wages that have been frozen for 15 years, and the poor conditions and discrimination from the “real” employees in the workplace. Hite-Jinro used their poor finances as the excuse to refuse wage negotiations for 15 years. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the company underwent record growth and sales skyrocketed, to the point of the company receiving a higher credit rating. Despite this, the company still refused to enter negotiations. The workers could not take any more of this, and kept the strike going.
Despite the poor conditions and insane hours the freight workers endure, some voices criticize the strike and the Safe Transportation Act. One of the reasons they bring up is the idea that there is no equivalent protections anywhere in the world. This is completely false. According to a fact check from E-Daily, in Australia, Brazil, and Canada, there are already legal protections like the Safe Transportation Act, and in the US and the EU, the work hours and breaks are mandated by law. This is even before taking into consideration the higher wages and labor protections the workers in most of the above countries enjoy.
Not only that, but labor protections and labor unions are beneficial for the union members as well as every employee. Members of labor unions on average receive higher pay; 8% more in Korea, and 30% more in the US. They also receive better benefits and safer working conditions. And this doesn’t just apply to the unionized workers; workers in unionized fields receive higher pay after the field becomes unionized, and they too enjoy safer working conditions and better benefits, albeit at a lesser level then unionized workers. Labor unions are not bad for the economy either, despite what some voices will loudly proclaim; the wealthiest countries in Western and Northern Europe are the most unionized countries on earth.
The Western and Northern European countries, who are often touted by many citizens and politicians as a better functioning society, view labor unions on a far more positive lens than we do. In many of those countries, all workers are unionized and statistically enjoy better benefits, work-life balance, and happier lives. In Korea, however, the working conditions are often poor, and those who fight for the workers, such as labor organizations like the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, are often demonized by politicians and the media. We as citizens must recognize this reality, and view it in a more objective lens.
Min Jeong-ung (ST Cub-Reporter)