SEOUL – U.S. soldiers continue to man the gates at U.S. military bases in South Korea more than two weeks after a new security firm failed to hire enough employees to get the job done.
Despite the fact that the firm, G4S, continues to be short-staffed and in violation of its contract, U.S. military officials say they are willing to give the company more time to get up to speed.
Both sides insist the situation will soon be resolved, that security at the bases has not been compromised and disruptions have been kept to a minimum.
“We are in continuous communication with G4S as they move to hire the appropriate number of personnel to meet the contract requirements,” U.S. military officials said in a statement. “The government has determined that it is in the government’s best interest to give G4S some additional time to comply with the terms of the contract.
“G4S is currently not in full compliance with the terms of the contract,” they said. “If for some reason they cannot execute the contract in accordance with the performance standards, we have the option to terminate and re-solicit the contact or award the contract to the next acceptable bidder.”
U.S. officials would not say how long they would wait for G4S to meet the terms of the contract before deciding to terminate.
Initally, G4S officials refused to answer questions about the trouble the company is having filling its positions. This week, however, G4S spokesman Steven Chon issued a statement saying, “G4S will be phasing in and manning all posts gradually by expanding the recruitment pool, while continuing to offer equal opportunity employment to affected employees of the former service provider.
“G4S is making every possible effort to ensure that the inconveniences caused by the recent dispute will be kept minimal,” the company said. “We are grateful to USFK and the local community for their support in the past few weeks and sincerely thank everyone for their understanding.”
Because G4S does not have sufficient manpower, some gates at a number of American installations remain closed and U.S. soldiers have been pulled from their normal duties to man the gates that are open.
Most of the guards who worked for the previous security contractor, Joeun Systems Corp., have refused to work for G4S, saying the new company is asking them to work longer hours for less pay.
U.S. officials said Joeun Systems was paid a total of about $118 million over the past five years for its services, but G4S was the lowest acceptable bidder for the next five-year contract at a price of about $109 million.
As G4S took over gate security at most U.S. military bases in South Korea at the beginning of this month, only 60 of the 850 guards who worked for Joeun Systems had agreed to sign on with the new contractor, according to officials with the guards’ union.
On Thursday, G4S said it has hired about one-third of the 600-plus guards it will need to secure all the posts. Many of those hired are former Joeun Systems employees, G4S officials say.
Those guards, Chon said, “have chosen to join us after comprehending our employment terms, and the number of new joiners is growing each day.”
Peck Eunho, one of the heads of the union representing the former Joeun Systems guards, said that despite those who chose to take the jobs offered by G4S, , the vast majority of displaced workers will continue to gather in protest outside the gates of U.S. bases “every day, now and forever,” until USFK either hires another security firm or G4S offers its new hires better contracts.
The out-of-work guards have staged protests on an almost daily basis outside U.S. Army bases, including Yongsan Garrison, Camp Red Cloud, Camp Casey, Camp Humphreys, Camp Henry and Camp Carroll.
Union and G4S officials offered conflicting views of how the employee contracts under the old and new security companies compare.
Union officials essentially said G4S requires its guards to work 243 hours per month, or almost 70 hours more each month at standard pay compared to the overtime pay they would have received for those hours under Joeun Systems – a difference in one pay category, for example, of approximately $360.
Chon countered that G4S pays its guards a monthly income ranging from $1,470 to $1,700, if they work an average of about 225 hours.
“G4S treats employees fairly and our principle is to make available as many hours as possible to those staff members that wish to maximize their earnings,” he said. “A standard 12-hour schedule helps minimize favoritism and avoid the emergence of a privileged group who get paid more by working more overtime hours.”
U.S. military officials said that while soldiers are supplementing the staffing of gate security positions, “The U.S. government is capturing costs associated with this transition, which G4S will have to reimburse to the U.S. government.”
Officials declined to say how many access control points are being staffed by soldiers, but that those servicemembers have been trained in entry procedures, rules of engagement and how to handle emergency situations.
They insist having soldiers working as gate guards does not compromise either the security of the bases or the U.S. military’s ability to respond in the event of, say, an attack from North Korea.
“Our number one concern is the force protection of those who work and reside on our installations,” U.S. military officials said. “Normal operations continue on our installations. Some access control points may be closed or have reduced hours during this transition period as we seek to mitigate disruptions in daily activities.”
For years, the Army has hired private security firms to guard the bases at many overseas locations, even though the air force mans its gates with active-duty airmen.
“Safety and security of our servicemembers, their families and those who work and reside on our installations is paramount to the USFK mission,” officials said. “Service components determine how best to accomplish force protection on their installations.
“Commanders continuously assess their force protection and may determine it best to outsource the requirement to civilian security guards at the gates in order to allow service members to focus on their assigned wartime mission,” officials said.
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.