South Korean taxi drivers went on their first nationwide strike today, demanding a fare increase and the right to burn diesel amid rising fuel costs.
The 28 percent surge in the past three years in prices for the liquid petroleum gas taxis and a 2,400 won ($2.08) cap on initial fares since 2009 are squeezing drivers’ income, according to Kim Do Gil, a spokesman for the taxi association leading the walkout. The organization has 160,000 members and is coordinating the one-day strike with two other labor unions and an association representing a total of 130,000 drivers.
Without cabs, traffic on Sejong road, a main artery through Seoul’s downtown, flowed unobstructed at 3:20 p.m. in the city. As of 2 p.m. only 14 percent of cabs were still operating nationwide, according to an e-mailed statement from the transport ministry. In Seoul, the nation’s capital, 8,000 taxis out of 73,000 units are in operation, the statement said.
“I plan to join the strike and a gathering of union members,” said Shin Bong Seok, 61, who’s driven a Hyundai Motor Co. Elantra taxi for 12 years in Seoul. “There are just so many problems to solve.”
Transport agencies across the country scheduled more trains and buses to help commuters.
In Seoul, where the subway and buses ran an hour longer until 2 a.m. this morning, the transport ministry said plans include the addition of 255 train services, plus 988 long-distance buses and 2,773 local buses.
Talks between the government and taxi drivers last took place on June 12 and ended without a resolution, according to Kim at the taxi association. The government is examining the demands, said Kim Hak Weon, an official at the transport ministry.
Cab drivers, required by the government to run their vehicles on LPG, are also demanding they be allowed to use other fuels such as diesel, according to the taxi association.
The starting fare for taxis in South Korea is 17 percent cheaper than in New York City and 77 percent cheaper than in Tokyo, based on yesterday’s exchange rates. After the first 2 kilometers, the meter will add 100 won every 144 meters (157 yards) or 35 seconds, according to the Korea Tourism Organization’s website.
As many as 33,000 drivers had gathered in front of Seoul City Hall as of 2 p.m. today, according to the transport ministry’s e-mailed statement.
The drivers are demanding higher fares, stabilization of LPG prices, the use of alternative fuels and to make taxis eligible for state subsidies, said Kim at the association. They’re also asking the government to reduce the number of taxi licenses and compensate drivers who choose to leave the industry, he said.
As few as 20,000 Seoul taxi drivers were expected to give up a day’s earnings and participate in the strike, according to estimates by Kang Sang Wook, a researcher at the Korea Transport Institute, a government owned transport policy adviser.
The price drivers pay for LPG increased to 1,145 won per liter in April, from 900 won per liter in March 2009, according to a report on the taxi association’s website.
Prices for LPG increased 8.9 percent during the first four months this year, according to data from Korea National Oil Corp. That compares with a 4.6 percent increase in gasoline and 1.4 percent gain in diesel prices.