For Migrant Workers, Path From Boom to Bust Leads Home
Last of three articles
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."
Asia's new migration is not just confined inside national boundaries; indeed, the economic crisis has created a mass movement of people across the region, reversing the traditional migration paths. During the boom years of the 1980s and early 1990s, workers from the poorer Asian countries, such as Indonesia and particularly the Philippines, flocked legally and illegally to wealthier countries such as Malaysia and South Korea, and also to Hong Kong, to make up for acute labor shortages.
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.
Now, only two years after Wannapa left her village to fulfill a dream of working in the big city, she is back home in Sai, in a raised house next to the family rice paddy, pulling on overalls and covering her face with a wide-brimmed straw hat and scarf to ward off the blazing sun and keep her complexion free of the villager's ubiquitous tan.
"I decided to go to Bangkok because we were so poor," Wannapa said, recalling how she first made the trek with an older sister when she was 15. "I was very excited," she recalls of her arrival in the Thai capital on the train from the northeast. "I was glad to see all the beautiful things in Bangkok."
After working as a housemaid, and then in a cosmetics factory, she finally found the firm making Combat sneakers. She earned about $62 a month -- more with overtime -- which allowed her to send cash home to her parents and still have enough left to pay her way through school. "I wanted to study," she said. "I sent myself to school in Bangkok."
Wannapa moves expertly in the rice paddy, pulling out the seedlings, trimming them and placing them in a pile for replanting. Like all village children in the northeast, she began learning the trade when she was 7 or 8. "It's not a big change, because I was born here," she said.
But she is clear about where she would rather be. "I like it in Bangkok because I was independent," she said. "I could support myself going to school and do anything I want. . . . I had money when I was in Bangkok. Here I don't have money." Now her older sister has also been told her job will end, meaning no one will be working to send money back home.
"Here in the village, we don't have much to do. We only have to work in the rice fields once a year. But in Bangkok, we work every day and get paid every month."
Wannapa is not alone. In Sai, an estimated 100 people out of a total population of 435 went to Bangkok to work, leaving mostly old people and small children in the village. The majority of those migrants went to work for the Ital-Thai construction company. But with construction drying up, about 60 of those villagers have returned.
"They don't know what to do -- they just stay at home," said Wichitra Chusakul, assistant manager of a group called NET (for Northeast Thailand) Foundation, which assists rural villages. "They can live because they have rice to eat. But they have no future plans."
One recent jobless returnee agreed. "In Bangkok, we had to work all the time, but we had money," said Pan Rewthong, 45, a laid-off construction worker who spends afternoons drinking beer and sitting in the shade with other, jobless friends. "Here, we have a more comfortable life -- but we don't have any money."
And Sai is not unique. There are 2,000 such villages in Surin province, and although there are no precise surveys, Wichitra said, "every village sends their people to Bangkok to work, so they all have the same problem."
The influx of returning migrants also brings with it a host of new problems and urban pathologies previously unknown, or at least rare, in these remote villages. There is concern that more people living in crowded conditions is leading to increased tension in families -- more spousal abuse, more child abuse. Crime is on the rise. And experts worry about a new spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.
"There's been a massive return of people to rural areas who had been living in cities," said Robert Bennoun, a UNICEF official who is also an adviser to the U.N. program on HIV/AIDS. "The hospitals are filling up. . . . They're going at a time when the communities are already wiped out by the economic crisis. People are going back with HIV at a time when the health services are particularly stretched."
In Sai, they haven't seen the problems yet -- but residents say they are worried. "If it rains well, and people keep working, it will be okay," said Thanakorn Jantamon, 32, a carpenter on an Ital-Thai construction site who also returned to the village this summer. "But if not, the unemployment rate in the village will increase and we will get crime."
There have already been incidents in neighboring villages, he said. Motorbikes stolen. Poultry pilfered. Even water buffalo have disappeared from fields. "I hear of things being stolen in other villages," he said. "I think it's because of the crisis bringing people back who are unemployed."
"Go back to your village!" That has become the mantra of Southeast Asian governments grappling with their worst economic downturn in decades. In Indonesia this year, when thousands of job-seekers flooded into the capital, Jakarta, for the annual village-to-city migration after the Muslim Idul Fitri holidays, they were met with a harsh reception: The Jakarta governor, Sutiyoso, launched a crackdown called Operation Yustista to clear the city of migrants. Police at bus stations checked identity cards of new arrivals, and those without Jakarta addresses were frog-marched back onto buses.
The plight of Indonesia's rural migrants was even summed up in a popular folk song, the title of which translates: "No One Told You To Come To Jakarta."
Thailand has been less firm, but the message has been the same.
During a recent sit-in by textile workers on the outskirts of Bangkok, a labor department official showed up in a necktie and starched white shirt to explain to thousands of laid-off workers, most of them female, why they should leave Bangkok once they collected their severance pay.
"I'm trying to solve the problem by having them get back to the village, and the local governments will support them there," said the official, Deputy Labor Minister Prakob Sangtoh. "They can raise fish in fish ponds to sell and to eat."
But many of the workers who heard the labor official's plea were unimpressed, saying that for them, village life offered hardly any choice at all.
"It's hard to go back and do the same thing because I've forgotten all the skills," said Noi Sangraksa, 27.
"We have to have money to spend," said Boontuen Phosuwan. "We can't avoid spending money. Now all the unemployed people are being told to sell things [in the villages]. But if we are all selling things, who will there be to buy them?"
Advocates for Thailand's poor and newly unemployed have suggested the government has an ulterior motive in its strategy of asking the unemployed to return to their villages: to prevent the buildup in the capital of a critical mass of unemployed.
"The recent government policies to help the poor, such as loans for the unemployed, [are] only to delay the social unrest," said Suriya Thongnuead, an adviser to the Forum of the Poor, an advocacy group. "It doesn't help solving the real problem of poverty among the majority. I can't see any way out for the unemployed workers who go back to die in the village."
For many unemployed -- especially those who have been living in the city for years, including single women with children, returning to the village is hardly an option. Boontuen Phosuwan, at age 40, had been working at the Thai Melon textile company for 17 years; her sister, Samang, 42, has spent 24 years at the same company. For them, home is not a faraway village in the northeast, but the factory and the dormitory behind it. Family is as much the colleagues on the assembly line as the parents and siblings they left behind long ago.
"I'm still shocked now," said Boontuen, who had joined the sit-in at the factory demanding the payment of back wages and severance pay. "But I still have to get back home to spend some time thinking.
"It's hard to get a job," she said. "I don't have much education. Nobody will take me. I don't feel very well at all. My older sister was working here too, and another brother and sister have all lost their jobs."
"This is all I know -- weaving cloth," she said. "We started doing it by hand. And then the machines came, and we did it by machine. This is the only thing we know."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company