Abe Keita (Franciscan priest)  

I visited Seoul (South Korea) 4 years after my last visit there to attend a meeting of my Franciscan religious Congregation, the Franciscan Committee of East Asia. I had also the opportunity to attend a workshop on foreign workers living in South Korea that took place about 50 minutes by car from Seoul at Ansan City (Gyeonggi-do), a place I had visited before, 14 years ago.
In the summer of 1992 I joined the members of KALABAW NO KAI, (Association in Kotobuki for Solidarity with Foreign Migrant Workers, Yokohama) in solidarity with foreign migrant workers to defend their rights, and traveled with them to Ansan City to observe the situation of foreign workers in South Korea.
In the 80's, during the years of the economic bubble, workers from many different countries reached Japan. At that time the numbers of entertainers and manual workers at construction sites increased suddenly. At the same time their situations deteriorated gradually.
Employers, making use of overstaying practices, will stop paying wages to the workers and conversely exploited them by unjust dismissals. Such exploitation became uncontrolled at that time. Nevertheless volunteers and labor unionists rose up against those injustices and organized support groups. By 1990, little by little, citizens' support of foreign workers became more professional and public officials started to pay attention to those private activities.
Around that time, during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, South Koreans had to face an increasing number of labor accidents of foreign workers as well as consultations with regard to their daily life problems. Due to the lack of consultation centers and of full time staff in Korea, at the time, volunteers as well as trade unionists built temporary tents around the churches of Ansan City that were used for consultations on labor accidents and daily life problems. People still remember now how at the time many foreign workers crowded into those temporary shelters that were staffed with just a few volunteers.
Fourteen years have passed and the situation has greatly changed. The Migrant Workers Pastoral Center has been built and Divine Word Fathers from the Philippines are serving now the foreign workers. The center runs a day nursery for the foreign workers residing in that area and a community of Christians has been organized. The workers told me that compared to the past, more workers are now employed fully and the working conditions have substantially improved. On the other hand, supporting groups and their staff are more professional now. The faces of the workers visiting the Center smile naturally like feeling at home there. Let me express here my spontaneous feelings.
Comparing the foreign workers living in Japan with those that have started to live in South Korea their situations differ, since the time of arrival is much faster for those coming to Japan than for those reaching the Korean Peninsula. As for South Korea, it is only of late that working conditions have improved, families have been formed and their children are attending day nurseries and primary schools. A generation shift has not yet occurred.
In the case of Japan, foreign workers have settled down for years already and many of their children are teenagers, they have formed their lives in Japan. There is a new generation change taking place and the families have to overcome many new problems facing them. For instance, the relationship between Filipino or Latin American parents that came to Japan with their children born here has to confront the difficult task of identity and language. Often, those persons concerned do not know what to do about it.
NGOs and church groups that do pastoral care with foreigners, in Japan, conduct often Japanese language lessons for them. There are also a variety of activities to improve international relationships at grass root levels. Since the early 80s when support groups intensified their activities with foreign workers Japan has accumulated experience to cope with cultural exchanges and self-identity, children' s education, international marriage and a number of basic life issues.
South Korea, from now on, will have to confront similar problems once foreign workers settle permanently in the country. I left the city of Ansan thinking that other Asian economically growing countries, like Vietnam and India, will most probably face similar problems in a near future.
=====     Copyright ®1997-2007 Jesuit Social Center All Rights Reserved     =====