Kang Myung-gil parked his truck last week and stopped hauling products from a unit of Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) and other major South Korean companies to the port of Incheon, joining a strike that has hit industrial hubs and ports.
At stake is his family’s livelihood, Kang said, as soaring fuel prices and other costs make it impossible for him to go on while big business can pass on the burden charging higher prices to customers like himself.
Kang, 50, said in an interview he had no choice but to join the strike even though he was not a member of the union.
“When the other side of the world is getting better, why is our side of the world going backward and getting worse?” he asked.
The truckers are striking for the seventh day on Monday, protesting against rising fuel prices and demanding minimum pay guarantees.
The action has paralysed ports and cargo terminals in South Korea – a major supplier of autos, batteries, semiconductors, smartphones and electronics goods – further stretching global supply chains already disrupted by China’s COVID-19 curbs and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Working as many as 15 hours a day, father-of-three Kang says he earns about $2,300 a month. Since April, his monthly fuel bill has leapt about $1,000.
He has borrowed from his in-laws to pay interest on his loans and says a $800 monthly income from his wife’s part-time job at a nursery is not enough to raise three children.
The truckers’ demands centre on the extension of a 2020 measure dubbed the “Safe Trucking Freight Rate, which ensures minimum pay and is set to expire this year.
The union says the measure is crucial to ensure truckers work in sustainable conditions. Being independent contractors, they say it guards against fuel price fluctuations and exploitation by powerful businesses.
The new government of President Yoon Suk-yeol does not control parliament and says it is up to the truckers to negotiate a deal with bosses and the opposition to extend the minimum wage guarantees.
“The most frustrating thing is I’ve been following all the rules, like installing low-emission equipment, even by paying more money if I need to. But why is the situation torturing me now and why would I let things be taken away?” Kang said.
In 2019, he was paid 280,000 won for a 240 km (149 mile) round trip between Incheon and a Samsung display panel plant in Asan, although other truckers hired by higher-tier subcontractors were paid 320,000 won for the same trip.
Under the minimum rate scheme introduced in 2020, the freight rate increased to about 350,000 won for all truckers including non-union drivers.
The price of diesel at gas pumps was 1,960 won per litre in May 2022, compared to 1,340 won a year before, a 46% jump. Urea solution, mandatory for diesel vehicles, has doubled in price since a supply crisis in November, drivers say.
While the strike has been largely peaceful, tension is rising as the truckers run out of funds to maintain their industrial action.
Truck driver Park Kyung-soo said drivers were fighting for fairness.
“We are not beggars. We want our message to be heard for that fair share,” Park, 55, said as he took turns cooking inside a truck for fellow drivers in Incheon.