SEOUL — Thousands of South Koreans who work for the U.S. military could go on strike later this month to protest what union officials describe as stagnant wages, unstable jobs and unfair working conditions.
U.S. Forces Korea countered that it has followed appropriate procedures and pointed to its recent decision to fully fund the salaries of its Korean employees — most of which are normally paid by South Korea — thus averting the furloughs of more than 12,000 Korean employees earlier this month.
Kim Song-yong, head of the USFK Korean Employees Union, said this week he doesn’t know how many employees might take part in a strike, which would be timed to coincide with President Barack Obama’s visit later this month. He wouldn’t speculate how long it would last.
“We will fight until our requirements are fully satisfied and until USFK complies with our requests,” he said.
The union’s 9,500 members are scheduled to vote April 14-16 on whether to strike, according to the union’s website.
The National Assembly is preparing to meet in a special session this month that is expected to include a debate over a controversial defense cost-sharing agreement with the U.S.
Under the Special Measures Agreement, South Korea pays as much as 71 percent of salaries for Korean employees who work for USFK, while the U.S. pays the rest. However, the National Assembly has not ratified the latest SMA due to concerns about an increase in Seoul’s contributions and a perceived lack of oversight of how USFK spends Korean-provided funds.
Had USFK not decided last month to provide full funding for their salaries, the Korean employees could have been furloughed beginning April 1.
“This decision reflects how much local national employees are valued and demonstrates U.S. concern for maintaining force readiness to deter aggression and defend the ROK,” the command said in a statement.
Choe Ung Sik, the union’s general secretary, said that in addition to complaints about shortened work hours, employees want to strike because their wages have been frozen for the past three years, though they are supposed to increase this year.
“A wage freeze is the same as a wage cut,” he said.
He also said plans are under way to replace some South Korean workers with U.S. civilians in violation of the Status of Forces Agreement. USFK says its staffing does not violate the SOFA.
USFK also said that because USFK’s Korean workers are employed by the U.S. government, their salaries are subject to U.S. laws and regulations that include restrictions on annual raises. The command said it is evaluating pay adjustments for them.