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Transport minister sorry for strike’s hassles

Nov 22,2019
Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee apologized Thursday for the Korean Railway Workers’ Union’s (KRWU) strike that has halted some rail operations.

But she argued that the union’s demand to hire 4,654 more workers to accommodate a new shift system would ultimately hurt the public.

“While [the demand] intends to prepare for the reduction of weekly work hours from 39.3 hours to 37, […] it creates a great burden of increasing labor costs by 442.1 billion won [$375.5 million],” Kim said during a meeting at Korail’s offices in Guro District, western Seoul.

“Hiring more than 4,000 workers without additional profits or cost-cutting measures will worsen operating losses and financial conditions and ultimately burden the public by causing a rise in rail fees.”

The main dispute between the union and Korail concerns a transition to a system of four teams working two shifts instead of the existing three-team system.

While the union has called for a complete transition to the new system next year, Korail has suggested adopting the four-team system while partially maintaining the existing system.

The transport minister noted that the government has already increased the number of rail workers by 3,017 over the past two years for new rail lines and to address safety concerns.

“In order to request additional hiring, there needs to be more cooperation between labor and management on a more flexible shift system, which has been lacking,” Kim said. “We request the union to halt the strike and immediately return to your workplace, while negotiations need to swiftly restart in order to reach an agreement.”

State-backed rail operator Korail is already deeply in the red.

It reported net losses of 104.9 billion won last year, while its total debt stood at 15.5 trillion won.

The Korail strike, however, is seeing a low turnout compared to previous strikes, suggesting that rail workers are not fully behind it.

According to the Transport Ministry, 3,262 workers of a total of 14,395 didn’t report on Wednesday, the first day of the strike, making a strike participation rate of 22.7 percent.

The participation rate on the first day of a three-day strike last month was 29.9 percent.

The government said it deployed substitute workers, leaving the total number of working personnel at 12,049, or 83.7 percent of normal operations.

The operation rate for all rail services was 92.2 percent on Wednesday, while subways operated by Korail in the wider capital metropolitan region were running at 98.6 percent.

Korail remains adamantly against the union’s demands.

On top of additional hiring, the union has demanded total wages be raised by 4 percent.

Korail CEO Sohn Byung-seok made a public apology on Wednesday, but stressed that such wage demands would not be possible.

“We are a state-run company that is controlled by the government in terms of wages,” explained Sohn. “It is not possible to have a wage hike beyond the government guideline.”

The government recommends a 1.8 percent rise in total wages for state-backed companies this year.

BY CHAE YUN-HWAN [chae.yunhwan@joongang.co.kr]