(ATTN: RECASTS headline; UPDATES with union's planned vote in paras 2-5, DP's position in paras 13-17; ADDS photo)
SEOUL, Dec. 8 (Yonhap) -- The government on Thursday issued an order for striking truckers serving in the petrochemical and steel industries to return to work, as their strike entered its 15th day amid growing disruptions of supply chains.
The order -- approved in an extraordinary Cabinet session presided over by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo -- was the second back-to-work order after the government ordered striking truckers in the cement industry back to their jobs last week. President Yoon Suk-yeol approved the order, his office said.
Amid the growing pressure from the government, the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union said later in the day it will conduct a vote Friday morning to decide whether to continue the walkout.
The leaders of the union held an emergency meeting in the late afternoon after the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) announced it will accept the government's proposal to extend a freight rate system guaranteeing minimum wages for truckers for another three years.
After the meeting, the strike leaders said they decided to hold a members' vote on its future course of action. The vote will begin at 9 a.m., they said.
During the Cabnet meeting, Han said the truckers' nationwide walkout is posing a significant threat to the economy.
"The prolonged unjustifiable refusal of transportation is seriously damaging to our industry and economy," Han told the session.
Han said the second order was inevitable because the strike is likely to disrupt shipments of key exports, including semiconductors and automobiles.
"In particular, disruptions in shipments of steel and petrochemical products are likely to expand to key industries, such as automobiles, shipbuilding and semiconductors, spreading to the overall crisis of the Korean economy," Han said.
Han renewed calls for striking truckers to end their strike.
"The government's stance is firm. The government will not compromise on the illegality and hold them accountable," Han said.
Since Nov. 24, thousands of cargo truck drivers have staged the strike to demand the extension of the Safe Trucking Freight Rates System guaranteeing minimum wages.
The government and the People Power Party announced last month they will extend the system for another three years beyond its scheduled expiration at the end of the year.
But truck drivers demanded the government make the system permanent and expand it to cover not only truckers delivering cargo and cement but also drivers in other sectors.
The main opposition DP said Thursday it will accept the government's proposal.
"We will accept the three-year extension plan proposed as the result of the policy consultation meeting and revise it," a DP lawmaker on the parliamentary infrastructure and transportation committee said in a press conference.
"It is the least we can do to prevent the strike from continuing and economic damage growing due to the Yoon Suk-yeol government's labor oppression, as well as sustaining the freight rate system," the lawmaker said.
Meanwhile, the finance ministry said cement shipments had returned to the average level as of Wednesday, following the implementation of last week's order.
The ministry said it is conducting an on-site investigation of 33 truck operators and 778 drivers in the cement industry. In addition, the government decided to take an administrative measure against one driver who failed to comply with the order without a justifiable reason.
Under the law, anyone defying the order can be punished with up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won (US$22,700). Until last week, South Korea had no record of issuing such an order since the relevant law was enacted in 2004.
Finance Minister Choo Kyung-ho said additional measures were necessary as the prolonged strike has caused damage to local industries.
"Should the group walkout last for a longer period, blast furnaces, which are considered the heart of steel plants, are feared to face disruptions under a worst-case scenario," Choo said.
"When petrochemical plants also suspend their operations, it will be inevitable to suffer massive disruptions in production, as it takes at least two weeks to re-start them," Choo added.
According to the ministry, shipments of steel products have decreased to 48 percent, causing damages estimated at 1.3 trillion won.
The output in the petrochemical sector also hovers around 20 percent of the average days, causing another damage of 1.3 trillion won, it added.
The minister warned that the prolonged strike may also cause severe damage to the national economy by hindering the production of key items, including automobiles, ships and chips.
"Our economy is facing a crisis due to the decrease in exports, inflation, and high interest rates," Choo said, adding that the country cannot afford to waste time on the "unnecessary" conflict.
Meanwhile, an official from the presidential office said the government is open to holding talks with the striking truckers once they return to work.
"If they return to work, we can open the negotiation table. There cannot be any preconditions for their return," a presidential official said.