U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) has notified its South Korean employees that they will be put on unpaid leave starting from next month. With the U.S. demanding a sharp increase in South Korea’s contribution to hosting USFK during negotiations for the 11th Special Measures Agreement (SMA), the unprecedented decision by the U.S. to put workers on unpaid leave will likely act as a variable in future talks.
The USFK on Wednesday notified half of its South Korean workers individually that they would be furloughed from April 1. About 4,000 South Korean workers, except for some 4,500 employees in critical operations related to life, health, and safety, are reportedly subject to the furlough.
In the final furlough notices sent to the employees, the USFK wrote that the employees will go on unpaid leave until notification of termination and the decision does not reflect their level of service, work ethic, contribution, and performance. The letter stressed that the employees are not allowed to work voluntarily without pay, should leave their place of work, and cannot perform any work related to their task.
South Korean employees immediately resisted the decision. “The government should not let workers used as pawns anymore in defense cost-sharing negotiations,” said the USFK Korean Employees’ Union under the Federation of Korea Trade Unions held a press conference in front of the presidential office on Wednesday. “An improved system needs to be put in place to protect the workers.”
The union said it will protest by going to work as usual but it is not an easy matter. According to the labor clause in the U.S.-South Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), South Korean workers employed by the USFK are not guaranteed the three labor rightsㅡthe right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to act collectively. If South Korean employees act collectively, the union will be canceled and those who participated will be dismissed, said the union. If South Korean workers show up during the furlough to work without pay, they could be taken by the military police and be disciplined for causing disturbance.
With the furlough set to take effect soon, the U.S. and South Korea are yet to reach a consensus in their defense-cost sharing talks. Both sides are sticking to their guns: The U.S. is demanding a sharp increase in South Korea’s contribution and a revision in the framework of the existing SMA to make it possible while South Korea keeps responding that the proposal is unacceptable in principle. “There isn’t only so much South Korea can do to make concessions,” said a diplomatic source familiar with the situation. “The U.S. needs to reasonable in its approach to negotiations.”
The South Korean government has kept proposing that the furlough issue be discussed separately from the SMA negotiations but the U.S. has yet to respond. Seoul’s top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo, who is in self-quarantine after coming back from the talks in Los Angeles, said he will try to persuade the U.S. until the last minute via e-mail and phone discussions.
Kyu-Jin Shin email@example.com · Gi-Jae Han firstname.lastname@example.org