By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – More than 10,000 unionised South Korean metro workers launched a two-day strike on Thursday in protest against the subway operator’s push for job cuts to stem snowballing debt, causing disruptions for some commuters in the greater Seoul area.
The strike came hours after negotiations between Seoul Metro and its two major unions fell apart due to differences over the operator’s plan to scale back its workforce by some 13%, or more than 2,200, by 2026.
Seoul’s metro operators have grappled for years with debt, partly from free rides for senior citizens, as Asia’s fourth-largest economy faces a rapidly aging population and surging welfare costs.
There was no major impact during the morning rush hour as the strike began at 9 a.m. and a smaller union dropped out at the last minute. But city authorities warned of some delays in the evening, and pledged to mobilise emergency trains, buses and substitute workers.
Employment and Labour Minister Lee Jung-sik expressed regret over the strike and said he would strive for a compromise while responding to any illegal acts.
Lee called for efforts to curb the metro operator’s debt, which topped 1.7 trillion won ($1.3 billion) last year.
Last month, the city raised metro fares for the first time since 2015, by around 12%, as part of efforts to reduce the debt, although free rides for the elderly remain in place.
“At a time when Seoul citizens are shouldering the burden with fare hikes, it is irresponsible for the labour union to ignore this and go on a strike,” Lee said on Facebook.
The union vowed to continue negotiations to normalise subway operations as soon as possible, but said the company should present a “forward-looking” position on its workforce downsizing plan.
($1 = 1,307.2600 won)
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Stephen Coates)