The conflict between the country’s taxi industry and information technology giant Kakao has escalated to new heights after a taxi driver burned himself to death in protest.
The taxi unions, which have staged multiple protests demanding that Kakao withdraw its plans to engage in the transportation business in South Korea, said Tuesday that they will hold another rally Dec. 20 in front of the National Assembly. Beginning Wednesday, some union members will set up tents and hold sit-in demonstrations around the parliament, they added.
“We plan to surround the National Assembly with 10,000 taxis and block the Seogang Bridge. We will not avoid physical fights with the police. We will not care about violating the law. We will fight for the next generation,” Kang said.
The taxi unions said they would put up a tough fight against Kakao Mobility over its ride-hailing service set to launch next week. The taxi drivers claim the commercial carpool service violates Korea’s transportation law and threatens their job security and livelihoods.
“Incidents like this are going to occur again. The government must suspend Kakao’s carpooling service and provide a solution and measures to help the struggling taxi industry,” Kang Sin-pyo, the chief of the National Taxi Labor Union, said after a meeting Tuesday.
At around 2 p.m. on Monday, a corporate taxi driver identified only by his surname, Choi, set himself on fire in his taxi in front of the National Assembly.
Before the incident, Choi, 57, reportedly told another driver that he wanted to carry out self-immolation because of the “Kakao carpool.” When police found and stopped him near the National Assembly, he fled and set himself on fire inside his vehicle. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he died about an hour later.
Choi left two notes explaining the difficulties taxi drivers face addressed to ruling Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Hae-chan and Sohn Suk-hee, the CEO and main anchorman of local broadcaster JTBC.
“To all of you taxi drivers, I sacrifice myself for the day that taxi drivers can be paid properly and live like human beings,” the note said.
Concerning Choi’s death, Kakao Mobility delivered condolences via a statement Tuesday.
“We are thoroughly reviewing to see how our service will contribute to increasing ride availability and how it will affect the existing taxi industry.”
Kakao Mobility also vowed to openly and actively participate in discussions with concerned bodies about important matters related to its service, including when it would officially launch the service.
Kakao began providing a beta version of its carpool service on Friday, and is set to officially launch the service to all users on Monday.
“We believe the existing carpooling services, including Kakao, clearly violate the law,” said Lee Yang-deuk, director of labor union Korea National Joint Conference of Taxi Association.
Korea’s taxi industry is regulated by the Passenger Transport Service Act, which bans the use of private, unlicensed vehicles for commercial purposes. The law, however, allows exceptions during “commute hours,” in which non-taxi drivers are able to engage in commercial driving activities. Article 81 of the Passenger Transport Service Act stipulates that a personal driver may provide paid transportation services when they are commuting to work together.
Lee explained that the law should be interpreted in a way that reflects its initial purpose.
“The act was made under a good purpose for people to commute together when it was legislated in 1994,” Lee said. “The trouble is caused when platform companies such as Kakao come in to operate the carpooling services to take commissions in the middle. And they say they are ‘promoting the development of the sharing economy.’”
Kakao, however, has claimed its service is legal and that it will become a vital solution, increasing the availability of transportation during peak commuting hours.
Due to the ambiguity of when the stipulated “commute hours” would be, the government has suggested that the carpooling service prohibit its vehicles from operating more than twice a day.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s task force on taxis and carpool services has expressed concerns, calling for a change of stance from the government.
“I express my sorrow and regret over yesterday’s incident. I call for the government to change its stance to draw up a social agreement,” said Rep. Jeon Hyun-heui, chief of the ruling party’s task force.
The government had previously said it would come up with revision bills to support the taxi industry, while asking for Kakao Mobility to delay the official launch of the service for a year.
“But Kakao said it cannot wait any longer and released the beta version of Kakao’s carpooling service. Past efforts to bring about compromise from the two sides is put to a difficult situation,” Rep. Jeon said.
In the latest response to Kakao’s carpool service launch, the country’s main taxi unions declared they would reject taxi-hailing calls placed via Kakao T. Instead, an increasing number of taxi drivers have joined Tmap, a rival service operated by SK Telecom. According to the mobile carrier, the number of Tmap users increased from 65,000 to 102,000 last month.
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org