SEOUL (AFP) — Export-dependent South Korea said Tuesday that a strike by container truck drivers in protest at soaring fuel prices has disrupted international trade worth almost five billion dollars.
The stoppage by more than 13,000 drivers, in its fifth day Tuesday, has crippled major ports and inland cargo terminals where containers are stacking up.
The Ministry of Knowledge Economy said the strike had affected exports worth 2.31 billion dollars and imports worth 2.43 billion as of late Monday.
More than 23,000 construction drivers -- largely those who drive dump trucks, bulldozers and concrete mixer lorries -- have also downed tools since Monday -- also in protest at rising fuel prices.
The labour unrest is intensifying pressure on the government of President Lee Myung-Bak, which is already grappling with a month-long series of street protests against its decision to resume US beef imports.
The Ministry of Land, Transportation and Maritime Affairs said the construction walkout hit some 510 state building sites nationwide, with 53 of them forced to halt work.
The construction and container truckers want steps to cut fuel costs or to be able to raise their fees in the face of the soaring price of diesel.
Some 20 percent of normal truck movements in and out of ports and cargo terminals was continuing, with the help of military drivers.
Five cabinet ministers at a press conference announced a 100 billion won (97 million dollar) package to modernise the transport sector and improve truckers' welfare.
Part will be spent on increasing the number of trucks fuelled by natural gas and some on toll fee discounts.
Drivers also complain about the way big companies subcontract services, which involves them losing 30-40 percent of their fees to middlemen. The government said it would try to draw up a better system.
But the ministers urged truckers to return to work. They also called on the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions to abandon its separate general strike plan announced for next month in protest at government policy.
"If these illegal acts continue, the government cannot but deal with them according to the law and principle," said Justice Minister Kim Kyong-Han.
Officials at the largest port Busan fear the stoppage will hit its status as the region's main transhipment port as storage space fills up, the JoongAng Daily reported.
"We worry that shipping companies will move their transhipment hubs to foreign ports," it quoted port authority marketing manager Kang Bu-Won as saying.
Local firms are beginning to face problems receiving raw materials and exporting finished goods. "Shipments have come to a halt now," a spokeswoman for steelmaker POSCO told AFP.
However she said the firm, as a precaution, had secured more raw materials than usual and increased supplies to customers before the stoppage began.
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