SEOUL, June 24 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of unionised South Korean auto workers atMotor Co began voting on Tuesday over possible strike action, while subway workers in three regional towns also staged a partial walk out.
Analysts and business groups have criticised President Roh Moo-hyun's government for taking a soft line on labour, arguing it has emboldened unions to seek better pay and to block structural reforms potentially requiring layoffs.
Nearly 40,000 unionised workers atMotor started voting at plants in several provincial cities on a strike plan to push for higher wages. The result of the ballot is expected to be unveiled later in the day.
With the economy already on the verge of entering into its first recession in five years, more industrial disruption now will be particularly unwelcome for authorities.
"Voting is currently under way to determine whether to strike or not," Hyundai union spokesman Chang Gyu-ho said.
If the strike is approved, workers at the country's top automaker would down tools from later this month or early in July.
Unionised workers at Hyundai, 10-percent owned by U.S.-German auto maker DaimlerChrysler AG , are demanding an 11 percent wage increase and better conditions for temporary workers. They also seek participation in management decisions.
Separately, a third of subway workers stayed off the job on average in the cities of Pusan, Taegu and Inchon, although trains were running normally as former drivers and others were filling in, a transportation ministry official said.
An official at the umbrella group for the striking subway unions said more than half of union members were staying off on average.
The three cities have a combined population of 8.9 million, nearly a fifth of the country's total.
Unions want more workers to be hired in order to have a team of two drivers on each train for the safety of passengers, while the government says this is unnecessary because trains are automated.
The latest industrial unrest comes after the integration of two banks in the crowded banking sector was postponed union pressure at the weekend.
Shinhan Financial Group is buying government-run Chohung Bank for $2.8 billion, but decided over the weekend to delay for at least three years integrating the banks after a strike by Chohung workers.
The decision sparked drops in share prices and was cited by analysts as another example of authorities caving into labour unions.
President Roh told a meeting of government officials late on Monday he would not tolerate illegal action by labour unions, but the former labour-rights lawyer made it clear he would refrain from using force in industrial disputes.
Threats of a strike by unionised rail workers had led the government to scrap a plan to privatise some of the country's railway operations, and truck drivers in the country's largest port city won higher payments and other benefits after a strike.