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School cafeteria workers launch strike

Protest leaves parents packing lunches, but not without sympathy
June 30,2017
이미지뷰
A kitchen for a school cafeteria in Chuncheon, Gangwon, is vacant on Thursday as cafeteria workers went on a general strike. [YONHAP]
Some 14,200 cafeteria workers of public elementary, middle and high schools throughout the country went on a two-day strike from Thursday demanding a raise in their pay and transformation of all limited contracts to unlimited contracts, forcing nearly 2,000 school cafeterias out of service.

“Counting all employees of schools going on the strike, including cooks, cooking assistants, librarians and administration officers, nearly 30,000 are estimated to be on the strike together,” said Min Tae-ho, secretary-general of the school contract workers union of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

The cafeteria workers’ strike shut down 1,926 cafeterias of public schools on Thursday. Of these, 598 schools asked parents to pack lunch for their kids, 1,057 served milk and bread instead, and 157 did not hold classes beyond lunch. The other 114 decided to hold outdoors classes and activities for the day.

The demands of the strike are two-part: an increase in the long-term employment allowances of unlimited contract workers and transformation of limited contracts to unlimited contracts or salaried employment.

There are some 370,000 contract workers in some 6,000 elementary, middle and high schools throughout the country, according to the Ministry of Education.

The contract workers make up 41 percent of the working force at schools.

Nearly half of these contract workers in schools are teachers in English, sports and after-school programs. There are about 47,700 cooks and about 13,300 cooking assistants.

These contract workers are hired on various contracts, from part-time contracts requiring service of 15 hours a week to unlimited contracts.

Unlimited contract employment is not equal to salaried employment in its working conditions and compensations.

The wage gap between salaried staff members and unlimited contract workers in schools have long been an issue brought up in strikes by unlimited contract workers.

Long-term employment allowances are a type of monthly payment included in the monthly salary of unlimited contract workers from their third year of continued employment. From the third year, employees receive a 50,000 won ($44) monthly long-term employment allowance, which increases by 20,000 won every year after that.

Contract workers at schools are demanding that education offices pay 50,000 won per month to unlimited contract workers from their second year of continued employment and increase this by 50,000 won every year after that to help level the wage-gap between unlimited contract workers and salaried workers at schools.

The unions have informed the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education and other local education offices of their strike in advance, and education offices sent out notices to parents earlier this week asking them to pack lunches for their children, or informing them that the schools will be serving bread and milk, or only hold classes in the mornings during the two-day strike.

Parents showed mixed reactions.

A 33-year-old mother of two children, surnamed Yang, handed off a lunch bag to her daughter in front of her classroom at an elementary school in Seocho District, southern Seoul, on Thursday morning.

“They said three cafeteria workers went on a strike here so they couldn’t prepare lunches for the students,” Yang said. “I understand the difficult working conditions of these employees at schools, but I don’t think they should stop serving kids food. I had to pack two lunches out of nowhere today.”

“I have to leave for work at 5 a.m. every day - how can I prepare lunches for my two children?” said a resident of Incheon.

“I can’t understand these workers going on strike at the expense of students’ welfare.”

Some parents supported the cause of the contract workers.

“My daughter packed her own lunch from early in the morning,” said another parent. “I am very proud of her. I hope these contract workers get their points across.”

BY JEONG HYEON-JIN [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]