SEOUL, AUG. 21 (FRIDAY) -- City bus drivers early this morning tentatively accepted a 10 percent wage hike, apparently averting the threat of a disruptive strike Saturday, after the South Korean government again intervened to control spreading labor strife.
Labor Minister Lee Hun Ki led an all-night bargaining session between representatives of the 18,000 drivers and the 89 private bus companies that employ them. The government urged both sides to accept the increase and promised to consider a bus fare hike later this year to help pay for it.
Lee's role represented the highest-ranking involvement thus far in South Korea's tumultuous labor disputes, which until recently the government had said should be solved by labor and management on their own. Earlier this week, the government abandoned that stance when the deputy labor minister flew to Ulsan to help end a standoff between workers and management at six Hyundai plants, including the automobile firm that builds Hyundai Excels for export to the United States.
About 40,000 Hyundai workers returned to their jobs Thursday after management agreed to recognize worker-elected unions in place of the company-sanctioned unions of the past. However, wage disputes at Hyundai, one of the largest industrial groups in Korea, are still being negotiated while operations resume.
Hundreds of other labor disputes continued around the country yesterday, part of a wave of strikes since President Chun Doo Hwan accepted on July 1 opposition demands for free elections and other reforms. After years of government efforts to keep wages low and unions weak, many workers have sensed an opportunity to redress long-held grievances, officials here say.
In what was probably his last annual press conference for local reporters, Chun yesterday expressed optimism about the future of the economy, but he emphasized that the nation must create 300,000 new jobs each year and cannot abandon the goal of economic growth in favor of income redistribution. "Equity without jobs would simply mean the equal distribution of poverty," he said.
Two thousand striking workers at Daewoo Shipbuilding and Heavy Machinery Co. on the east coast, another of South Korea's largest firms, clashed with police yesterday when they attempted to march out of their shipyard. Coal miners in the center of the country blocked a railway line.
In the first 19 days of August alone, there were more than 1,040 labor disputes, according to the Economic Planning Board, compared with fewer than 300 during all of last year. The board said the disputes in the past two months have cost $200 million in lost exports, a relatively small sum in this economy but enough to worry the architects of export-driven economic success here.
The government has warned labor not to escalate demands too high and has promised to crack down against "impure elements" that incite strikes. But so far officials have seemed to be eager to avoid strife, urging management to raise wages wherever possible.
Bus drivers had demanded a 28 percent pay hike, later scaled back to 22 percent. Bus company owners had offered 4.5 percent and then 6 percent.
Editorialists and politicians had warned that a bus strike would totally disrupt this capital city and, by creating a crisis atmosphere, could even jeopardize South Korea's delicate progress toward democracy.
"A massive strike in transportation services, therefore, can easily create a semblance of an emergency situation," the Korea Herald warned Sunday. "To put it bluntly, the situation will surely resemble a hell, if it ever materializes."
Roh Tae Woo, leader of the ruling party and its presidential candidate in elections later this year, yesterday urged the government to mediate.
"The situation must be prevented by any means in which a million Seoul residents should suffer inconveniences from the drivers' walkout," Roh said.