Tens of thousands of taxi drivers across the nation flocked to Seoul on Thursday to protest tech giant Kakao’s launch of a carpooling app, causing inconvenience as the labor unions also began a 24-hour strike at 4 a.m.
The venue in front of the National Assembly in Yeouido, Seoul, was filled with some 120,000 taxi drivers -- nearly half of all taxi drivers in the nation -- according to rally organizers.
“Carpooling service is illegal. Revise the Transport Service Act!” chanted thousands of protesters. “Let’s destroy the carpooling service industry.”
Taxi drivers protest against Kakao Mobility's proposed carpooling application in front of the National Assembly in Yeouido, Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)
While the Transport Service Act bans the use of private, unlicensed vehicles from providing commercial services, it has made exceptions during “commute hours.” Information technology companies, including Kakao Mobility, have introduced ride-hailing services exploiting this stipulation in the law.
The taxi industry has been protesting the carpooling service, claiming it threatens their job security and livelihood. Amid the escalating conflict, a 57-year-old taxi driver died after setting himself on fire in protest earlier this month. Following the death of Choi Woo-gi, Kakao Mobility postponed the formal launch of its service that had been slated for Monday.
The four taxi unions maintain hard-line opposition, saying the company should completely withdraw the business plan. A memorial altar for Choi was set up at the protest site Thursday.
Memorial altar set up at the protest site (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
“I do not understand why the National Assembly would not pass an amendment bill. The government claims it supports small businesses and individual proprietors. Taxi drivers are like them, but the government is demolishing our right to survive,” National Taxi Labor Union chief Kang Sin-pyo said at the rally.
A protester, who only gave his surname Lee, complained of the bad working condition.
“We work 16 hours a day and are paid just about 2 million won ($1,780) per month. Driving a taxi is tough work, but the government is not making efforts to improve our working condition,” Lee said.
The National Police Agency set up a barricade of police buses around the parliament in response to rally organizers’ announcement that they would encircle the National Assembly building and occupy a nearby bridge.
Police also warned they would take strong actions if the protest became violent, and dispatched some 12,000 officers to the area. Concerned about a possible blockage of the bridge, police also said they sent six teams of 20 officers for dialogue with the organizers.
The rally organizers of four taxi labor unions announced a 24-hour strike from 4 a.m. Taxi drivers started to gather in front of the National Assembly in the early morning hours for the massive protest that began at 2 p.m.
After their official rally ended at 4 p.m., the protesters marched from the site and crossed the Mapo Bridge to Mapo Station. They were to disband at around 6 p.m., according to the rally organizers.
Taxi users experienced inconvenience as a large number of taxi drivers participated in the work stoppage. The taxi unions said some 250,000 taxis would suspend their operations.
“I was waiting for a taxi but I could not find one. I took the bus, but I am already late and my teacher canceled the appointment,” a woman in her 60s, who refused to give her name, told The Korea Herald as she got off a bus in Yeouido.
A city bus weaves through a narrow road, taking a different route due to the protest on Thursday. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
There was serious traffic congestion on the highways as taxi drivers across the country headed to the Seoul rally site. Some 200 taxis deliberately blocked the Daejeon highway at around 11 a.m. while they were heading to Seoul to participate in the 2 p.m. rally.
In response to the strike, regional governments extended public transportation services, increasing operation hours and vehicles.
On Wednesday, the labor unions had agreed to participate in a negotiating body suggested by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea to discuss solutions.
Despite the unions’ efforts, the public appears to be on the side of the carpool services. According to a local poll by Realmeter in October, 56 percent of 500 respondents said they are for Kakao Mobility’s carpool service because it benefits the people. About 28.7 percent were against the service while 15.3 percent said they were unsure or refused to answer.
“I believe this crisis was created because society is not catching up with the fast-developing technology. Proper law amendment and management is needed to resolve the conflict,” Lee Won-hee, 29, told The Korea Herald.
Kim Jung-yeon, an office worker who passed by the protest site, expressed disdain, saying the taxi drivers are “selfish.”
“I do not think going on a strike helps the situation. I saw a city bus weaving through pedestrians and parked cars on this narrow road, taking a different route because the main road is blocked by the rally,” Kim, 35, said.
“I may not know much, but I think the taxi drivers are only hurting their case. They lost much support from the public with their unkind services.”
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org