(ATTN: ADDS more details, comments in paras 8, 11-13)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, March 25 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) began notifying 5,000 South Korean employees Wednesday that they would be furloughed starting next month, officials said, as defense cost-sharing talks between the two countries remain stalled.
The two sides have been negotiating a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that stipulates how much Seoul should pay for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong USFK. Salaries of about 9,000 South Korean employees are also funded under the agreement.
The latest round of negotiations took place last week, but the two sides failed to bridge differences.
USFK has warned of furloughs starting April 1 unless a new cost-sharing deal is reached in time.
On Wednesday, USFK began sending out furlough notices to about 4,500-5,000 workers, an official said.
In the notice, the U.S. Department of the Army said that "the reasons for the furlough remain valid," as there were "no remaining funded positions in your competitive area to which you have a placement right."
During the furlough period, the employees "will not be permitted to serve as an unpaid volunteer, must remain away from their workplace, and are prohibited from performing any work-related duties," the letter read.
USFK confirmed the issuance but did not elaborate on the exact number of employees subject to the unpaid leave.
During the defense-cost talks, South Korea proposed concluding a separate agreement to first address the wage issue, but the U.S. rejected the idea over concerns that such a move could further delay a comprehensive deal, according to Seoul's top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo.
Earlier, the U.S. Department of Defense said it will fund the salaries of key Korean workers who provide life, health, safety and other services.
In protest of the move, the labor union of the Korean employees held a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday, calling for the revision of rules on the defense cost-sharing deal and a broader related system so as to better guarantee their labor rights.
A USFK worker was relieved that he was not given a furlough notice, but he voiced concerns about his colleagues facing unpaid leave.
"My colleague working in the military police section may have been notified of the planned furlough, which could be quite dispiriting for the only breadwinner in his family," the employee told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.
Since last September, the two countries have held seven rounds of SMA talks. The U.S. still demands a hefty increase of Seoul's financial contribution to the USFK to some $4 billion, while Seoul appears to have expressed willingness to pay more than its earlier proposal of an approximate 10 percent increase.
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