BUSAN, South Korea — You may have noticed an absence of honking horns on Wednesday, June 20. That’s because four of Korea’s major taxi companies held a nationwide strike for 24 hours—roughly 90,000 drivers, it was expected, though numbers as high as 220,000 have since been tossed around. It’s a big deal not just because there are only around 300,000 cab drivers in the country, but also because it marks the first time cabbies staged a strike in Korea, ever.
“The taxi industry is going through a tough time,” taxi driver Min Baek-ki told Arirang. “Even with inflation, I can't remember the last time that taxi fares increased.”
Let’s focus on that for a minute. Most expats are pleasantly surprised by how much cheaper cabs are here compared with the Western world. To be exact, Bloomberg confirms that “starting fare here is 17 percent cheaper than in New York City.” After the first two kilometers, roughly every minute—around 300 meters, to count—costs just 200 won.
All this adds up to around a million won per month, at the high end, in an average cabbie’s pocket, after taxes and company deductions for things like the car’s upkeep. But some drivers have been quoted as earning as little as 500,000 won per month, since gas (which cabbies pay for themselves, if that wasn’t clear) costs as much as 400,000 per month—nearly half their monthly earnings.
There’s a larger price to this, too, that goes beyond the ledgers. Just last year, one driver made headlines by hanging himself in his home after he couldn’t pay his company’s mandatory bills.
Naturally, when gas gets pricier, those big companies can’t just reduce their maintenance fees, and the hundreds of won that each kilometer brings a cabbie hardly keeps up. Liquefied petroleum gas—or LPG, as it’s commonly written—has been slowly skyrocketing from 457 won in 2002 to 1145 won just this past April—a 150 percent price hike, unmatched by cab fare increases.
The last time the fee was hiked was around three years ago, when the basic fare jumped from 1,900 won to 2,400, so if anything changes in the near future, it’ll likely be another 500-ish-won basic fare increase.
This is a very, very basic summary of a more complex issue, as any negotiation is. Union leaders met with government officials on June 12 but didn’t get very far, which is why, on Wednesday, around 30,000 taxis blocked traffic in downtown Seoul to protest their unsustainable careers. The government’s since made no official statement on raising basic fares, but it seems inevitable. If nothing changes, the cab companies say, they’ll stage another city-clogging protest in October, and strike again as early as December.