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SEOUL — Worldcup Arirang Tourism Co. on Monday evening planned to submit a set of proposals to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service in the hopes of resolving the current taxi cab driver strike and future financial concerns for the business, according to the company’s executive director.

Ahn Jong-in, executive director, wouldn’t release details of his proposal before sharing them with AAFES.

But he did say he thought it could work toward appeasing the drivers’ complaints about salaries while addressing his own company’s struggles with the weakened dollar in South Korea and the shrinking number of Area I and Area II U.S. Forces Korea customers.

“I really hope to restart and provide the service to customers,” Ahn said Monday afternoon during an interview in his office south of Yongsan Garrison.

A meeting between Arirang’s management and union leaders was scheduled for Monday night, both sides said. Arirang and its drivers in Area I and Area II are at odds over salaries, and Monday marked the 10th day of the strike.

Earlier in the day, the union’s 270 members received individual letters from Arirang, once again outlining the company’s argument it cannot afford an across-the-board $105 monthly pay increase. The union has repeatedly rejected this argument, saying the company is inflating the drivers’ salary estimates and instead is spending profits on property in Seoul.

“It’s all lies,” said Bae Sam-jin, a union member who has been driving for 15 years.

In his office, Ahn disputed that. Instead, he said the company has added special allowances for the drivers in past years to pay for car washing and parking spots, two perks that changed in 2003 after Arirang lost its headquarters spot on a U.S. military base near the Crown Hotel in Itaewon.

Because that small base was given back to South Korea, Arirang had to search for another headquarters. It purchased a building near the Han River south of Yongsan Garrison, Ahn said.

The real problem, Ahn said, is that the company’s income is in American dollars, but nearly all of its costs are in South Korean won.

Four years ago, the company collected about $600,000 each month in taxi fares. This year, it’s making about $700,000 in sales, Ahn said.

In South Korean currency, that represents a loss, Ahn said. Because the dollar value here has dropped, $700,000 is worth about 25 percent less than it would have been four years ago, he said. In won, the difference is 861 million in monthly income in 2002 compared with 660 million in 2006.

To make up for the loss, Arirang’s basic fare rate went from $1.50 more than a year ago to $2.10 now. The drivers also share in that boost, because they split their taxi receipts evenly with the company after making $87 during each shift, Ahn noted, though he admitted they too, are subject to the shifting values of dollar versus won.

Even with the fare increases, both the company and the drivers say their incomes are unacceptable. Arirang has been running in the red since January, despite the second fare increase in May. The drivers say their average monthly salary of $1,269 to $1,363 is the bare minimum needed to sustain a family of four.

Ahn says the drivers’ monthly income is closer to $1,579, a mix of basic guaranteed salary and fees with the tips and taxi fares the drivers share with the company.

Ahn has tried in the past to talk with the union about readjusting how those taxi fares are split after making the quota, which he says pays for the company’s dispatching service, fuel costs, insurance, car maintenance and other habitual costs.

The company wants to institute a sliding scale, so that the more fares the driver makes the more he or she can keep. Ahn said the union rejects that as an increase in their daily quota.

Ahn said it is still possible that the current union drivers could be barred from working on an AAFES contract, and that his company would begin to hire new drivers. “That’s not good, but I have no choice,” he said.

Instead, he hoped to calm the union’s members and get them back to work.

It’s unclear whether that will happen. As of Monday, the union was determined to hold out for more money and planning another rally near Yongsan Garrison on Tuesday afternoon.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.

What AAFES is saying ...

Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials have said they will not take sides in the current salary dispute between Worldcup Arirang Tourism Co. and its striking drivers.

Already, AAFES has sent the company two warning letters stating that contractual action may be taken against the company. AAFES officials have said that the contract is in jeopardy because the service has been suspended.

And on Saturday, an AAFES official told the striking union members they had until Monday to begin working or face being banned from current or future employment with an AAFES vendor. AAFES released this statement Monday afternoon:

“Arirang had until the end of the business day Monday to respond to AAFES. No further action concerning the current contract will be taken until after that time.”

Arirang officials said late Monday afternoon that they would respond to AAFES later that night but would not share details on their proposal.

“Nothing in the AAFES contract prohibits Arirang from hiring replacement drivers. Whether or not Arirang actually hires replacement drivers is their business decision.

“AAFES certainly hopes the ongoing negotiations between the contractor and taxi drivers merits a favorable decision soon and taxis begin running at full scale. We regret the inconvenience this strike has on our customers and thank them for their patience while this unfortunate situation is resolved.”

—Teri Weaver


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