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South Korean truck drivers call out alcohol giant from the rooftops as strike continues

23 Aug 2022

Image caption: The ITF’s Noel Coard (pictured right with KPTU’s Wol-San Lim) said 20 million workers stood behind demands for Hite-Jinro to reinstate sacked workers and pay a decent rate

South Korea’s biggest alcohol maker Hite-Jinro must pay drivers a decent wage, the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s (ITF) Inland Section Secretary Noel Coard told strikers at a rally outside the company’s headquarters in Seoul.

Drivers, who are classified as independent contractors, say rates have been frozen for the last 15 years and are now too low to cover the skyrocketing costs of running vehicles. Instead of bargaining with the drivers’ union (Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division (KPTU-TruckSol), an ITF affiliate), Hite-Jinro has cancelled the contracts of 130 workers. The latest financial statement from Hite-Jinro show a 67% increase in profits in the second quarter of 2022 compared with the same period last year, up to KRW 35.6 billion (USD $26.5 million).

“At the same time the company is raking in profits, it is refusing to even negotiate with drivers,” said Coard who flew into Seoul last week to show solidarity and speak at the rally. “Workers have been on strike since 2 June, and will remain militant while the company blocks their demands for a decent rate of pay.”

Far from engaging in talks, Hite-Jinro has filed a legal action for damages of KRW 2.8 billion (USD $20 million) against striking workers. Managers have also called in police to break up peaceful protests so that strikers have faced arrest and violence.

On 18 August, one thousand TruckSol and other KPTU members and supporters gathered in front of the Hite-Jinro headquarters to show their support and call on Hite-Jinro to engage in talks. ITF Inland Section Secretary Noel Coard represented the ITF in person at the rally.

Two days earlier, four members of KPTU-TruckSol took their protest on to the roof of Hite-Jinro’s headquarters. They plan to stay there as long as the company continues its deadly squeeze on truck drivers.

Speaking at the rally, Coard called up to the workers on the top of the building.

“You are not alone in your fight,” he shouted. “The 20 million members of the ITF are fighting alongside you, calling on Hite-Jinro to reinstate dismissed workers, drop its suit for damages, and bargain in good faith.”

South Korea has a landmark scheme for maintaining decent pay for truck drivers. SafeRates recognises the clear link between driver pay and safety – if you pay drivers a decent wage there are fewer accidents on the roads according to the International Labour Organisation’s Guidelines on Decent Work and Road Safety in the Transport Sector.

SafeRates has largely achieved its safety aims but a trial period is over at the end of the year and companies such as Hiro-Jinro have been lobbying hard to stop it being renewed. In doing so, they are putting their short-term profits above the lives of Koreans who use the roads, said Coard.

“If the Safe Rates system was expanded to cover all sectors, there would be no need for this industrial conflict,” he pointed out. “The fight for Safe Rates is now a global struggle, which KPTU-TruckSol is leading.”

Flemming Overgaard, ITF Road Section chair, said: “The actions by Hite-Jinro management and the authorities against striking truck drivers are in clear violation of international law, which protects the fundamental labour rights of all workers. If Hite-Jinro management continues its refusal to come to the table in good faith, the ITF will escalate pressure on the company globally.”