Korean USFK employees to request SMA covers wages

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Korean USFK employees to request SMA covers wages

The Korean employees union of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) is scheduled to meet with Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the USFK, Tuesday and request for their wages to be fully covered in the bilateral defense cost-sharing deal between Seoul and Washington in the future.

The two sides are struggling to renew their bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA) after their previous one-year deal expired at the end of December. At the end of last month, the USFK announced that if the two countries fail to reach a new deal on the stationing of some 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea before the start of April, it would put some 9,000 Korean employees on a two-month furlough without pay.

The union’s proposal comes as a solution to prevent the worst-case scenario of operations of U.S. bases being paralyzed because of delays in SMA negotiations.

“There can’t be any snags in the operation of the bases because the wages of the Koreans are being held hostage,” Son Gi-O, the secretary-general of the USFK Korean Employees Union, told the JoongAng Ilbo over the phone Monday. He added that in the future, the cost-sharing deal “needs to 100 percent cover the wages of these personnel,” something he plans to explain to Abrams in their meeting.

Currently, some 88 percent of the Korean USFK employees’ wages are covered by the Korean government according to the previous cost-sharing agreement.

The union has said that the Korean employees could continue working after April without pay for the sake of national security, however it has been told by the USFK that this would be impossible under U.S. labor law.

Son said, “Even if the negotiations are somewhat delayed, if the source of the wage payment is ascertained, there could be ways to continue to work including drawing up a special budget.”

The USFK announced in January that it sent furlough notices to some 9,000 Korean national employees, of which at least 2,000 are considered necessary personnel in order to maintain operation of U.S. bases — including those who manage communications, electricity, utilities, firefighting and medical services.

“There could come a situation where we will have to let go of key personnel that support military operations and the safety of troops,” warned Son. “We need to have open-minded discussions on what the true intentions of the USFK are, as well as what we have to do, and can do.”

Seoul and Washington have been negotiating the 11th SMA since September last year but continue to have gaps in their understanding despite the previous deal expiring on Dec. 31, 2019. Coming to a deal soon was an issue discussed by Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday in brief talks on the sidelines of a security forum in Munich.

With April drawing nearer and a breakthrough on the SMA negotiations nowhere in sight, Son said, “The SMA talks are not taking place, thus the USFK will also inevitably be feeling a sense of crisis.”

The union also met the USFK commander in March last year right after the sealing of the 10th SMA and shared consensus on signing a multi-year cost-sharing agreement and discussed ways to stably operate U.S. bases in Korea.

BY LEE KEUN-PYUNG [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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