Asia's Broken Lives
The Path From Boom to Bust Leads Home
By Keith B. Richburg
Pan Ngamsukee has been making the trek from his village to earn money in Bangkok since he was 12; he's now 40, and has never seen it this difficult to find work. Ekachai Thubthaisong is 50 and has been coming to Bangkok about as long, working on construction sites since he was 20. And Wad Boonmanad, just 27, has a young child due to start school soon, and he's heavily in debt. "I'm worried," he confides, staring solemnly out the bus window.
The three men, friends from the same small village in the northeast, came to Bangkok together after spending a few weeks at home to help plant the family rice fields. They came with 200 pounds of rice between them, and expected to pick up their old jobs as day laborers on city construction sites and earn enough money to send back to the village and pay off old loans.
But Thailand's economic crisis meant that this year, construction in Bangkok has all but ceased and there's no work for migrant laborers like Pan, Ekachai and Wad. So they sold their rice, bought bus tickets home and were sitting on the hot, stuffy orange bus crowded with other newly unemployed workers waiting to start a long journey back to an uncertain future.
"I have to find a way to make money," Pan said. "People in the village work in the rice field, so they have food. But they depend on the people working in Bangkok to send cash."
The scene is being repeated every day around Thailand, and around much of Asia, as the economic crisis that began last year has sent unemployment soaring. Factories have closed, new construction has stopped, and even businesses that are staying open are laying off workers. The vast majority of the newly unemployed are migrant workers from rural areas, the manpower and the backbone of the decade-long Asian economic boom.
Thai government officials estimate that unemployment here has already topped 2 million. Of those, 1.3 million are believed to be villagers who were working in the city, and most of those, at least 1 million people, have already returned home.
It was migrant laborers who built Asia's gleaming high-rises. They weaved the textiles and stitched the sneakers and assembled the automobiles and slapped together the plastic dolls that fueled what was then called the Asian economic miracle. But with the region's economy in an unprecedented downward spiral, these laborers are the first to be laid off.
The result has been a dramatic reversal of the traditional village-to-city migration pattern that transformed Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries from predominantly agricultural to mainly industrial societies in one generation.
"The migration patterns have reversed in Thailand," said Kul C. Gautam, the East Asia and Pacific regional director for UNICEF. "Before, people went from the countryside to the big city, for the bright lights, the jobs and so on. Now it's the other way around. People are going back to the villages. That is putting pressure on the village economies. They had grown used to these people being in the cities."
"There are no jobs in the villages," said Graziano Battistella, director of the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila, which tracks the movement of people in the region. "Unless these people have some entrepreneurial skills, or some cash, it's very difficult there will be any job creation. ... But from a government's perspective, [jobless] people in the villages are much less visible than people in cities."
Foreign workers in Hong Kong built much of the new $20 billion airport. Migrant labor built Malaysia's huge road network and its high-tech cyber-city, Kuala Lumpur, as well as Japan's Winter Olympic Village in Nagano. And tens of thousands of Philippine domestic helpers have fanned out through Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. But when the economic downturn hit in the middle of last year, among the first and most popular acts of governments around the region was to send migrant workers home, restrict the entry of newcomers and begin cracking down on illegal labor.
Those once welcomed are now largely scorned.
"We planned to go to Bangkok, to work as housemaids," said Rai. She is an 18-year-old woman from Laos, Thailand's poor and isolated neighbor, and is staring forlornly from behind the metal bars of the small cell at the Singkorabhom district police station, in Thailand's northeastern Surin province. "We are poor at home."
Rai's home is an impoverished village in Laos's southern Champasak province. In search of jobs and a better life, she and a group of friends five females, two males took a boat across the Mekong River, caught a bus in Ubon Ratchathani and made it as far as Surin before Thai police apprehended them and nine other illegal Laotian migrants.
"We weren't sure if we'd get a job in Bangkok," Rai said. "But we were willing to take the risk." Her group included two girls who are only 13 and another girl of just 16.
In better times, when work was plentiful and the Thai economy was expanding, police might have turned a blind eye to this group of illegal job-seekers. But word of the Asian crisis apparently has not yet reached rural Laos. "I didn't know about a crisis in Thailand, that people were losing their jobs," Rai said.
In a nearby cellblock for men, Somporn, 20, wearing a black "Rolling Thunder" T-shirt, seemed equally perplexed at why this well-worn path to prosperity has suddenly been blocked. "I wanted to get a job in Thailand," he said, hanging onto the jail bars to speak with a reporter. "Thailand has jobs. There are no jobs in Laos."
Since the crisis began, Thailand has deported an estimated 250,000 migrants mostly Burmese. South Korea granted an amnesty for illegal foreigners who left voluntarily meaning they would face no fines or jail terms and about 50,000 did so. Malaysia, another crisis-crippled country, deported about 50,000 Indonesian migrants, out of a total migrant worker population of roughly 2 million, legal and illegal. Some of the deportations were violent; one Indonesian construction worker was beaten to death by police.
Still, most of the migration and the new reversal of movement has come not across borders but within countries. "International migration is the one that gets the attention," said Battistella in Manila. "But internal migration is the much wider phenomenon."
With her thick braid, thin gold neck chain and fashionable purple sarong skirt, Wannapa Boontang, 17, looks like any other Bangkok teenager, more at home in the air-conditioned shopping malls than a tiny village of a little more than 400 people. And Bangkok is exactly where she was, until this summer, when the factory where she worked making Combat-brand sneakers closed down and fired all 50 of its employees.
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