[Back] Date: Mon, 19 Jan 98 10:35:18 CST
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Asian Migrants Made Scapegoats For Crisis
/** labr.global: 280.0 **/
** Topic: Asian Migrants Made Scapegoats For Crisis **
** Written 3:29 PM Jan 17, 1998 by labornews in cdp:labr.global **
ICFTU OnLine... 004/980108/ND

Migrants made the scapegoats of the crisis

By Natacha David, in ICFTU OnLine...
8 January 1998

The financial tornado that is devastating Asia's economies has found an easy target: the migrant workers from neighbouring countries. Three million of them will have to leave their "host" countries to free up jobs for national citizens. Their return home will further weaken the already critical state of the economies of their countries of origin.

Brussels, 8 January 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): Bankruptcies are multiplying throughout South East Asia, as unemployment soars. As always, whenever unemployment rears its ugly head, migrant workers are the first to take the blame. Three million of them have suddenly found themselves persona non grata in Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea.

In Malaysia, thanks to the recession, many development projects have been suspended and the government announced on January 2 that it will expel one million immigrant workers - half the country's registered foreign workforce - to free up jobs for its own citizens. Most of the 2 million migrants in Malaysia come from Indonesia, or from Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri-Lanka and India. Over the last decade of continual economic growth, Malaysia became highly dependent on foreign workers to take on the lower paid jobs, scorned by its own workers. In the building industry, 80 per cent of workers are foreign.

The Immigration Department plans to step up work place inspections to ensure that employers are not illegally employing foreign workers. Official estimates speak of 800,000 clandestine workers, mainly Indonesian. Only the migrant workers in strategic sectors such as the export industries and the plantations will be allowed to stay. The measures announced by the government are so radical that the Malaysian opposition is worried whether local workers are really ready to take on the migrants' jobs. If they don't, employers may find themselves short of labour, particularly in the hotel trade and heavy industry.

The Thai government has also announced its intention of taking measures to repatriate some 300,000 registered migrant workers over the next three years. In total the Thai government aims to repatriate some 300,000 to 500,000 foreign workers per year, mainly from Malaysia, southern Asia and Indochina. Employers will be notified of the repatriation policy and will have to respect a deadline. After that deadline, any employer who violates it will be liable for three years' imprisonment or a fine of 1,200 dollars.

Among the migrants who will have to leave the country are tens of thousands of Burmese workers, whose return will be even more difficult than most. Many belong to the ethnic minorities who are constantly harassed by the Burmese army, which forcibly displaced populations to eradicate the resistance of autonomous movements.

In South Korea too, hundreds of companies are collapsing every month. According to official statistics, 120,000 people lost their jobs in November alone, adding to the 480,000 jobs losses recorded in 1997. The unemployment rate, which was at 2.8 per cent, is expected to rise to 6 per cent in 1998. Given the popular discontent this creates, the decision to repatriate some 270,000 migrants is bound to be met with public approval.

High risk

If Malaysia puts its intentions into practice, Indonesia, hard hit by drought and the region's economic crisis, will suffer badly from the forced return of its migrants to the country. In Indonesia, more than two million people have lost their jobs, including many company bosses and even army leaders, since the beginning of the financial crisis last July. Unemployment, which was 7 per cent in 1995, looks likely to have risen to 11 per cent in 1997. Last year, Indonesia had to face up to the forced return of thousands of immigrant workers from Saudi Arabia, which refused to prolong their work permits. A new influx of repatriated workers will only aggravate the situation and increase the risk of political destabilisation hanging over the increasingly unpopular Suharto regime.

Bangladesh, which exports more than one million workers each year, mainly to Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, also fears the forced return of its expatriates. In Korea, there are already some 10,000 Bangladeshis targeted for expulsion, while the 250,000 Bangladeshis working in Malaysia are facing the same fate. Emigration is an important source of income for Bangladesh, contributing some 1.34 billion dollars to its trade balance for the year 1995-96. Between January and November 1997, emigrants repatriated some 1.4 billion dollars.

All these labour exporting countries were already heavily dependent on the currency revenue from their emigrants before the crisis. In the present situation, the income it represents is all the more sought after, which is why competition on the regional and international labour market is become fierce, to the detriment of course of migrants' pay and working conditions.

Exporting workers at all costs

Thailand has launched a campaign to encourage its citizens to find work abroad. To slow down the rise in unemployment and bring in strong currencies, the government is eagerly inviting Labour Ministers from foreign countries to come and see at first hand the "good quality of Thai workers" and boast that they "work hard, are prepared to negotiate, and are tireless"! The Thai authorities aim to export 210,000 workers this year, mainly to work in construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Bangkok plans to send workers to the Middle East again, which it had virtually stopped doing since the Gulf war. Other favoured destinations are the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Australia and Greece.

Bangladesh is hoping to expand emigration to the Gulf states, mainly to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Some 5,000 Bangladeshi's are currently waiting for jobs abroad.

Sri Lanka has also stated its intention of stepping up emigration. In 1997, about one million Sri Lankans employed abroad, two thirds of whom are in the Middle East, were due to send some 830 million dollars back to the country, and the government hopes to increase this by finding another 200,000 jobs abroad for its citizens. Colombo prides itself on being able to keep its emigrants in Malaysia, arguing that they are skilled workers unlikely to lose their jobs.

But competition from Chinese migrants prepared to work for very low pay is worrying migrants from other countries in the region. The Filipino authorities have expressed their concern at the growing number of Chinese immigrants who are competing with other Asian migrants in the United Arab Emigrates for the lowest skilled jobs. According to the Chinese Ambassador, only 3,500 Chinese currently work in the United Arab Emirates, mostly in hotels, restaurants or private medical or other companies. It may seem a very small number compared to the 85,000 Filipino workers in the United Arab Emirates, but it marks a steady increase of 15 per cent each year in the number of Chinese workers over the last three years, an increase recognised and encouraged by the Chinese Embassy. In principle, the Chinese government recommends that the minimum salary for its migrant workers should be about 300 dollars per month. But it may be a lot lower for those who don't come from the big towns. As the Filipino labour attach‰ at the embassy in Dubai commented, "competition is fierce. We have to find a niche in the migrant labour market, particularly through specialising in more professional, highly skilled jobs."

Vietnam also plans to make use of its cheap workforce to increase the exportation of its workers. There are only 12,600 of them so far, but by the year 2000 the government intends to increase that number considerably, and has taken measures to liberalise the employment agency sector and to encourage workers to diversify their occupational and linguistic skills.

Contact: ICFTU-Press at: ++32-2 224.02.12 (Brussels).

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