|Seoul Mayor Park won-soon, center, holds hands with Seo Jong-su, second from left, head of the Seoul Bus Drivers Labor Union, and Pi Jeong-kwon, fourth from left, head of the Seoul Bus Operators Association, at the Seoul Regional Labor Relations Commission office, after reaching a deal on bus drivers' working conditions and wage hikes, Wednesday. / Yonhap|
By Bahk Eun-ji
Bus drivers across the country called off their strike planned for Wednesday, after reaching agreements with their management over wage hikes and other conditions in last-minute negotiations, or deciding to continue talks.
This prevented the feared traffic chaos in the morning rush hour, but the agreements will inevitably lead to more taxpayers' money being spent to support the bus companies.
Unionized bus drivers nationwide initially planned to walk out in the morning, calling for bus operators and local governments to come up with measures to ward off an expected salary cut in July when the 52-hour workweek system is applied to them and they could lose out on overtime pay.
Drivers in eight metropolitan cities and provinces agreed on wage hikes and other working conditions and scrapped the strike, with Seoul making a deal 90 minutes before the planned walkout and agreeing on a salary hike of 3.6 percent and gradual extension of the retirement age from 61 to 63.
In Ulsan, the drivers started the strike at 5 a.m. but reached an agreement about three hours later, operating buses normally afterward.
Union members in five other regions, including Gyeonggi Province, decided to postpone their walkouts and continue negotiations until the end of the month.
For Gyeonggi Province, the decision for further talks came after Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee, Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung and ruling Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Hae-chan announced a bus fare hike late Tuesday afternoon.
They said the fare for intra-city buses will rise by 200 won ($0.17) in September and that for buses linking Seoul and provincial regions of Gyeonggi Province by 400 won.
Governor Lee, who had previously opposed raising the bus fare, citing the financial burden to citizens, said, "The fare hike is inevitable given the inconvenience residents would face if bus services are reduced."
The transport minister said the government would seek bus fare hikes in some other regions ― South and North Chungcheong provinces, South Gyeongsang Province and Sejong City ― by the end of the year.
Kim added that government plans to adopt a semi-public bus management system, in which bus companies are in charge of bus operations and local governments cover their losses instead of having a say in fare determination.
Although the agreements and government measures have prevented massive strikes, critics say the deals will inevitably increase the state and local governments' spending to make up operators' deficits.
In Seoul, the 3.6 percent wage hike means the city government will have to pay 50 billion won to cover companies' losses, as it has adopted a semi-public bus management system. The city already covered losses of 277.1 billion won in 2016, 293.2 billion won in 2017 and 540.2 billion won last year.
If Gyeonggi Province's inter-city buses became part of the semi-public system, the central government will have to cover the operators' losses.
"We know there are concerns that a huge amount of money will be used for the semi-public management system," the minister said in a statement. "We'll improve the system and increase control to enhance the public interest."