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[Newsmaker] Seoul subway workers to launch strike next month to protest restructuring plan

People walk across a platform to transfer lines at the Sindorim Station in Guro-gu, southwestern Seoul, on Monday. Seoul Metro`s unionized workers plan to wage a full-scale strike next month in opposition of the restructing plan of the transit authority. (Yonhap)
People walk across a platform to transfer lines at the Sindorim Station in Guro-gu, southwestern Seoul, on Monday. Seoul Metro`s unionized workers plan to wage a full-scale strike next month in opposition of the restructing plan of the transit authority. (Yonhap)
Seoul’s subway workers on Monday warned of a full strike next month to protest Seoul Metro’s massive restructuring plan, the company’s response to continuing financial losses.

Unionized workers at Seoul Metro said at a press conference Monday that they will stage a full-scale walkout on Sept. 14 unless the central government and the Seoul Metropolitan Government withdraw the restructuring plan and devote the funds to improving the corporation’s financial standing.

The union is asking the government to step in and allocate funds to run the subway corporation, reduce losses and hire new workers to improve the quality of service. It attributes the losses to excessive transfer discounts and transit fees that have been frozen since 2015.

Workers also demand that metropolitan transit authorities be treated the same as the Korea Railroad Corporation in terms of government support. Under the Framework Act on Railroad Industry Development, around 60 percent of Korail’s annual losses are covered by government funds.

The Seoul Metro labor union denounced the restructuring plan, saying it sacrifices laborers’ interests and would set a dangerous precedent for other businesses and agencies, leading them to treat workers unfairly in times of hardship.

Yet unionized workers said they were open to negotiating with officials before the scheduled walkout date.

“Our fight is aimed at stopping wrong policies from happening before stopping the trains,” the union said in a statement Monday. “A walkout by subway workers would cause inconvenience for subway users and cause concerns about virus measures, so this collective action will be seriously considered.”

It has also been said that Seoul’s subway authority, like those in other regions of the country, has lost money by offering free rides to older adults. Seoul Metro could have reaped huge profit, some say, if it had charged seniors for subway rides.

The announcement comes weeks after Seoul Metro unveiled a sweeping restructuring plan focused on cutting its head count and employee benefits to make up for its mounting losses.

The corporation plans to cut 1,539, or nearly 10 percent, of its 16,700 employees and mitigate its accumulated loss of more than 1 trillion won ($851 million). The plan also involves reducing benefits, freezing wages and outsourcing some of its duties to the private sector.

A vote shows that the union is seriously considering the full-scale walkout. During a four-day vote among Seoul Metro’s unionized workers last week, 81.6 percent voted in favor of the strike.

If the walkout goes ahead, serious disruptions can be expected for subway users in Seoul and the surrounding area. According to Seoul Metro, an average of 5.4 million people per day used the subway within the Greater Seoul area last year.

The walkout could extend beyond the capital area, as Seoul Metro’s labor union is joining forces with unionized workers from subway corporations in Busan, Daegu, Daejeon and Incheon to stage a nationwide walkout of subway workers.

The group of subway workers has warned of a nationwide strike in October.

Gwangju’s subway workers have entered negotiations with the city’s transit authority in a sign that it might not participate in the nationwide strike if talks go well.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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