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Homeless, Jobless, Hopeful in Korea

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Last week I was privileged to speak at an International Convention in Seoul, Korea on the topic of community organizing. The mayor of Seoul and the Seoul Welfare Foundation sponsored this event, which drew people from Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Korea and the United States to speak.

As part of my week-long stay in Seoul, I visited homeless shelters and homeless organizations. Although homelessness might have existed in Korea in some form before the late 1990s, homelessness grew immensely with the financial crisis of 1997-98. The economy went into a tailspin. People lost jobs, businesses failed and homelessness grew.

Homelessness is also increasing because of "irregular work." Irregular work is temp work: no benefits, no guarantee of continual work, inconsistent hours and low pay. Last Saturday evening when I was returning from a trip to visit the DMZ area (dividing line between North and South Korea) I was caught in a massive traffic jab.

The reason: there was a major demonstration in support of irregular workers. In addition to a crowd of demonstrators numbering well over a thousand people, I counted over 50 police buses filled with Seoul police.

Across the street from the demonstration was a semi-permanent "Hope Tent" (set up in front of Deoksu Palace in Central Seoul and one block from city hall). In the tent were two men who were part of a 77-day Sit-Down Strike to protect the workers' right to work. As I entered the tent to talk with the two strikers, I paid homage to the 22 workers who had died and were memorialized by a small altar erected in the tent. Many of the deaths were from suicide. Workers were upset over how they were treated by the company as a result of the strike.

The tent was erected in order to stop a 23rd death from occurring. The Ssang Yong Motor Workers continue their struggle to make their voice heard. One of the strikers told me the history and cause for the strike. The other worker was on the 19th day of a water-only fast.

The "Hope Tent" together with the images of the 22 deceased workers was sobering but also inspirational.