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Rail strike is not too disruptive

Union, Korail still very far apart on wages, change in shift system
Nov 21,2019
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The union workers of Korail hold a strike in front of Seoul Station on Wednesday. The union workers have been demanding that the rail company increase their wages and hire more than 4,000 additional workers. [KIM KYUNG-ROK]
Mr. Koo, a 40 year-old office worker, was at Gimhae International Airport in Busan waiting for a flight to Seoul on Wednesday morning.

Koo initially planned to take the 6:12 a.m. KTX high-speed train to Seoul. He changed his plan at the last minute because he feared a strike by Korean railway union workers could cause travel delays.

“I needed to arrive in Seoul at the right time,” Koo said. “After reading that they were cutting back on the number of trains, I immediately switched to a plane.”

But at 8 a.m. the same morning, Suwon Station didn’t show any sign of travel problems. An overhead electronic sign notified passengers that the 8:42 a.m. train headed to Yongsan Station would be late - by three minutes.

The Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) went on a general strike Wednesday morning. But despite advance concerns - especially among people who commute to Seoul from cities on the outskirts - there was no major chaos and no hordes of people waiting on platforms in the unseasonal cold.

This was largely because the strike started at 9 a.m., which is past commuting time.

The situation could get worse.

In fact, right after the clock struck 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, several non-KTX trains including ones traveling to Gwangju and Iksan announced curtailed services.

Korail CEO Sohn Byung-seok apologized to the public for the strike.

“We will do our best to try to solve the issue as quickly as possible through talks while enforcing all of our resources in operating the trains safely to minimize the public’s inconvenience,” Sohn said during a press conference at the rail company’s headquarters in Yongsan District, central Seoul, on Wednesday.

“While we are working on minimizing the inconvenience as much as possible especially on subways operating around the [Seoul] metropolitan area during rush hours, we have [inevitably] had to reduce the number of trains operating for safety reasons.”

Sohn again asked the labor union to return to the negotiating table.

“What we need now is not a strike that is trying to force all of the demands at once but to solve the problems one step at a time through dialogue that would win back the public’s trust,” Sohn said. “I hope [the union] will not turn its back on the expectations and requests of the 3.4 million people who use the trains every day.”

Sohn said the company had negotiated with the labor union in roughly 30 meetings to prevent the strike but failed to reach an agreement on wage hikes and hiring.

The KRWU has demanded a 4 percent increase in wages and the hiring of an additional 4,000 workers.

KRWU has also demanded that starting next year the work burden be reduced from three teams working two shifts to four teams.

Korail has proposed of a 1.8 percent increase in wages and 1,800 additional hires.

The government and Korail particularly disagree on a proposed change to the shift system.

Under the current three-team-two-shift system, a non-desk employee of Korail works four days straight and gets a two-day break before restarting the cycle.

Under a proposed four-team system, the employee would work two days and take a break for two days before restarting the cycle.

The union wants a change to the four-team system.

Even under the current system, the average workweek is 39.3 hours. Under the four-team system, it would be around 30 hours.

“If we accept the union’s demands, the working hours for people at Korail will be the lowest in the country,” said Kim Kyung-wook, vice minister of land, infrastructure and transport.

“Although [the demands by the labor union] are on the level of advanced economies, it’s questionable if the public will easily agree with them.”

Korail says the costs of additional hires will be large: 200 billion won ($171 million) yearly if 1,800 are hired and 500 billion won if 4,000 are taken on.

The company is already in the red. Korail last year reported an operating deficit of 3.9 billion won with net losses of 104.9 billion won. As of last year, its total debt was 15.5 trillion won.

In the first three quarters of this year, the company is estimated to have suffered a 70 to 80 billion won operating loss, according to CEO Sohn earlier this month. Sohn said each day of a strike would cost the company roughly 3 billion won.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, high-speed KTX rail operations will operate at 68.9 percent of their usual rate, while subways operated by Korail on the outskirts of Seoul will run at 82.0 percent.

The Transport Ministry said it would especially focus on subways during commuting hours, saying they will run at 92.5 percent in the morning and at 84.2 percent in the evening. If the strike continues beyond four weeks, the government expects KTX operation rates to drop to 56.7 percent, the minimum mandated rate.

BY HWANG SUN-YOON, KIM MIN-WOOK AND LEE HO-JEONG [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]