About 20,000 nonregular workers of schools launched a two-day strike on Thursday, which led to the suspension the school lunch services at some schools.
The strikers demand to be hired as full-time staff, citing unfair employment policies. They are also calling for paid lunch breaks and paid vacation, and stressed that the two-day protest could expand to a general strike if negotiations fall apart.
The 20,000 strikers make up about 30 per cent of the three major unions of contract school workers nationwide.
According to the Education Ministry, around 60 to 70 per cent of the striking employees work in preparing school meals. Among the others were cleaning staff and contract English teachers.
For schools in Seoul, 594 nonregular workers of 131 elementary middle and high schools participated in the walkout. As 420 of the 594 strikers serve the school lunch, the students of 78 schools in the city were not served meals on the day.
Some contract employees of preschools reportedly joined the protest.
Students of many schools had to eat bread and milk or return home earlier than normal. Striking schools advised the students to bring packed lunches on Friday.
While nonregular workers in schools are required to pay for their own lunch, and are not paid during school closures, such as vacation period, permanent staff have a separate allowance each month for lunch, and receive a full wage during vacation, according to the Korean School Temporary Workers' Union.
"Contract workers in schools are paid 1.4 million won (S$1,600) on average a month and are required to pay for their own lunch," a union leader said. "In contrast, a regular worker has a 130,000 won lunch allowance each month and receives full wages during vacation."
The Education Ministry and provincial authorities were in a position to continue negotiations with the labour group, but are unlikely to accommodate all their demands as they claim to have insufficient funds to address their needs.
Meanwhile, other labour unions as well as organisations comprised of parents, teachers and university students expressed their will to support the move by contract workers.
Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea had promised paid lunches during his confirmation hearing. But his policy has yet to be implemented.