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Bus crisis de-escalates as agreements are reached

Strike averted in about half the regions, and others are near deals
May 15,2019
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Transportation Minister Kim Hyun-mee, left, holds a press briefing with Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung at the Democratic Party’s office in Yeouido on Tuesday on the agreement with local governments on the raising of bus fares. [YONHAP]
You may not have to walk to work today.

The nine-region united front of bus drivers threatening to go on strike started to collapse, with Daegu reaching an agreement first late Monday. It was followed by Incheon, Gwangju and South Chungcheong.

Other regions are set to reach agreements. Gyeonggi is approaching a settlement as the local government has said it will raise bus fares, while the central government has agreed to take responsibility for some intercity routes.

Joint efforts by the Moon Jae-in administration and the local governments on Tuesday were instrumental in achieving progress.

“With the proposal created by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the government has been able to reach an agreement with local governments,” Transportation Minister Kim Hyun-mee said.

“This has been an issue over supportive measures ahead of the 52-hour workweek that will be implemented starting in July,” she added.

The Gyeonggi government has decided to raise the bus fares in September, while the central government will be taking responsibility for travel between cities, including Gyeonggi and Seoul, from the local governments.

Gyeonggi has agreed to raise the intracity bus fares by 200 won ($0.17) and double-seat buses traveling between Gyeonggi and Seoul 400 won. Other areas, including South Chungcheong, Sejong and South Gyeongsang, have agreed to raise their bus fares this year.

If Gyeonggi raises bus fares in September, it would be the first hike since June 2015. The intracity bus fare will be raised from 1,250 won to 1,450 won, and for double-seat buses it will be raised from 2,400 won to 2,800 won.

Bus companies have been demanding that local governments raise the bus fares as they will be faced with increased costs as a result of the shorter 52-hour workweek, which will be adopted in July.

Local governments have been reluctant as the increase would incite public backlash ahead of the general election next year.

“Raising the bus fare is inevitable since serious social problems are expected, and people will face inconveniences when a number of bus routes are canceled,” said Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung. “I apologize to the Gyeonggi people.”

Minister Kim added that the central government is planning to take the jurisdiction of buses traveling between major cities from local governments. Bus lots and bus routes in remote areas will be eligible for central government support.

“These were not the targets of central government financial support,” Kim said. “However, we have decided to ease the burden on local governments.”

She stressed the importance of adopting the 52-hour workweek, saying it is to improve public safety.

“There have been major bus accidents as bus drivers have had to drive many hours and have fallen asleep due to overwork,” Kim said. “Both the ruling and opposition parties have reached an agreement at the National Assembly that buses should not be operating for long hours and decided to exclude buses from those that are exempted from the shorter workweek regulation. We have to have better working conditions, not only for public convenience but also for public safety.”

The local government agreements came as threats of a strike scheduled for today started to diminish.

Minister Kim said with the number of cities and provinces deciding not to join the strike growing, the situation should resolve quickly.

Daegu was the first to announce that it will be backing away from the strike after 22 bus companies agreed to raise the hourly wages of its drivers by 4 percent while extending the retirement age from 61 to 63 on Monday.

Negotiations have been ongoing since January.

Daegu bus drivers had demanded a 7.67 percent increase on their hourly pay.

Daegu union representatives said although the 4 percent increase is not enough, as the drivers will likely see their wages drop by 110,000 won once the 52-hour workweek is implemented in July, they said they would accept the offer considering the region’s economy and public inconvenience.

Incheon and Gwangju followed Daegu.

The Incheon contingent gave in and accepted a proposal from their bus company employers.

A 20-plus percent rise by 2021 was offered and deemed reasonable by the drivers.

Specifically, the bus companies in Incheon proposed raising wages by 8.1 percent this year. Next year, the wages will be increased by 7.7 percent and in the following year 4.27 percent.

Additionally, the companies have agreed on extending the retirement age from 61 to 63.

On average, the monthly wages of Incheon bus drivers is 3.54 million won.

An 8.1 percent increase will raise their wages to 3.83 million won.

The latest proposal is a bold move by local authorities, who set the bus company wages in the city. In a previous round of negotiations in March, the Incheon government had offered a 1.8 percent raise, matching the rise in public servant salaries.

The bus drivers have been demanding that the bus companies raise wages by 23.8 percent. They not only want to be covered for the wages lost as a result of the shorter workweek, but also want their compensation to match the level of earnings of bus drivers in Seoul.

Bus drivers earn 3.9 million won a month in Seoul.

The Incheon government will be funding the higher wages, so fares will not have to be increased. It will spend an estimated 44 billion won covering the increased wages.

Bus fares in the city have remained the same for four years.

“Buses should never stop,” said Transportation Minister Kim.

“Since Daegu reached the first agreement, Incheon has also joined in. The agreements are the result of active mediation by local governments and responsible negotiations by both labor and the companies,” Minister Kim said.


BY LEE HO-JEONG [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]