The Korea Herald


Seoul subway workers could go on strike from Tuesday

Unionized workers protest Seoul Metro’s sweeping restructuring plan

By Ko Jun-tae

Published : Sept. 13, 2021 - 14:11

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View of a packed subway station near Gwanghwamun area in central Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap) View of a packed subway station near Gwanghwamun area in central Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)
Unionized workers of Seoul’s subway authority are likely to start a full-scale walkout Tuesday as their scheduled negotiations with Seoul Metro management is not expected to yield any outcome.

Representatives of the Seoul Metro workers’ union and their corporate counterparts were scheduled to hold the last round of talks at 3 p.m. Monday ahead of the union’s full-scale walkout starting Tuesday. The union is against Seoul Metro’s restructuring plan made in face of continued losses.

Train operators within the union will start their walkout with the first train in service, and the rest of the workers are planning to start their strike at 9 a.m. The 5,000-strong union is planning to hold a press conference and follow-up rallies throughout Tuesday by the National Assembly in Yeouido, Seoul.

Some subway workers from Incheon, Gwangju, Daejeon, Daegu and Busan are also planning to join the Tuesday rally in solidarity.

Several weeks earlier, Seoul Metro announced a sweeping restructuring plan that would slash nearly 10 percent of its 16,700 employees, reduce benefits, freeze wages and outsource some of its tasks to the private sector as a means to mitigate its continued losses.

The transit authority has incurred losses of more than 500 billion won ($425 million) for three years straight since 2019. It recorded a net loss of 1.11 trillion won from fewer passengers due to COVID-19 restrictions last year and is expected to record its highest-ever loss this year, above 1.6 trillion won.

Unionized workers have demanded Seoul Metro to back away from the plan and instead requested financial support from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the central government to make up for the losses in part by treating Seoul’s subway system the same as the state-run Korea Railroad Corp.

That would entail using government funds to cover around 60 percent of annual losses from the Seoul Metro, like it does for the Korea Railroad Corp. under the Framework Act on Railroad Industry Development.

The walkout is expected to cause some disruption to subway train schedules within Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province until workers and Seoul Metro management reach an agreement. But it will not likely to create major disturbances to Seoul residents’ everyday lives, city officials say.

The transit authority said its around 5,000 essential workers will be still at work even though the union is on strike. A lot of the systems have been automated, which reduces the need for headcount to be maintained in running its train services.

The city government said subway trains will operate as usual during rush hour but will have longer intervals between arrivals at other times.

Yet the city government said safety could be a concern if the walkout is prolonged, as fewer workers will be tasked with maintenance and security work as the strike drags on.