SEOUL, Dec. 24 (Yonhap) -- Prime Minister Chung Hong-won appealed to striking rail workers Tuesday to immediately return to work, reiterating the government's promise not to privatize rail services.
Thousands of unionized workers of the state-run Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL) walked off the job for more than two weeks in protest of the company's decision to set up a separate unit to operate a new KTX bullet train line. The union has called the move a prelude to privatizing the national services that would result in massive layoffs and fare hikes.
"Expressing a firm willingness not to pursue privatization is the best way for the government to accept the labor union's demands. I think no other options are left," Chung said while presiding over the weekly Cabinet meeting.
Calling on the unionized workers to stop "making repeated claims which have already been accepted," the prime minister urged them to immediately return to work and to seek solutions via dialogue.
Last week, Chung issued a statement to the public and vowed stern responses to "the illegal strike," while calling on the management and the union to boost the competitiveness and efficiency of the debt-ridden public firm.
KORAIL is saddled with more than 17 trillion won (US$16.03 trillion) in debt, and at the current rate, the amount is expected to reach 50 trillion won in 2020, according to government data.
Touching on Sunday's clash between police and the unionists during the officers' botched attempt to arrest union leaders who have been defying prosecutors' summons, Chung said "the disruption of due law enforcement process is hard to imagine in this law-governed country."
The KORAIL workers have been on a collision course with the government amid growing concerns that the conflict would spread over to the overall labor circle.
While President Park Geun-hye, along with the prime minister and the labor minister, have reaffirmed their "principled reaction" instead of any compromise, the umbrella confederation of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions signaled an upcoming general strike on Saturday in protest of Sunday's police raid with tear gas into its headquarters in Seoul.
Rail services have been affected by the ongoing strike, as the operator was forced to cut its passenger services by an average of some 30 percent, and freight services by around 70 percent as of Monday.
The prime minister also presided over a meeting of ministers relevant to the ongoing strike, and instructed them to immediately set up a task force on the issue, according to the Prime Minister's Secretariat.
The new team will manage the overall situation, including the strike's effects on the public and the economy, while seeking a solution, it added.
The prime minister also called on the ministries to better convey the government's stance that the ongoing strike is illegal and based on unfounded fears of privatization.
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