Migrants in a maelstrom

The first victims of Asia’s economic crisis are the millions of migrant workers whose labour is no longer required by the region’s erstwhile ‘tigers’. Their repatriation raises serious political, economic and social issues for citizens and states in both home and host countries. The migrant’s plight reveals the human dimensions of the crisis masked by other economic indicators.

The World Today
6 minute READ

As the deepening Asian economic crisis brings untold misery to the inhabitants of the region, its costs are unequally distributed. Especially hard hit are the silent ‘foot-soldiers’ of regional development – the millions of migrant workers who crossed national boundaries in search of material improvement, and who, in the process, long helped to sustain high economic growth rates in East and Southeast Asia.

With the onset of the crisis, countries like Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea, have announced plans to return migrant workers to their home countries. As victims of economic failure, their return to probable unemployment and destitution holds major socio-economic implications.

Six million Asians are employed outside their home countries, half of those within the region. At least fifty per cent of these are there illegally. The potential problems of so much ‘floating labour’ in East and Southeast Asia affect both host and home country. Thus the issue of economic migration needs to be assessed if the possible socio-economic consequences of the present crisis are to be fully understood.

The impending repatriation of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers will place a huge burden on their home countries. The most formidable task is the reabsorption of returned migrant workers both economically and socially. This is compounded by the fact that the social structure of home countries at all levels – from individual to state – is highly dependent on remittance income earned abroad.

The repatriation process will be felt most evidently in a sudden loss of income. In some countries, no other factor has so profoundly affected the domestic employment and balance of payments than the migration of contract labour.

In countries like the Philippines, whose 2-4 million overseas workers send home over US$0.75 billion annually, migrant labour remittances are the country’s third largest source of foreign exchange.

In Bangladesh, thirty-two per cent of foreign exchange earnings come from migrant labour. Between ten and thirty per cent of the labour force in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh works overseas. The wage differentials between labour supplying and labour importing countries can be considerable – sometimes as much as 80 to 1 (as in the case of Bangladesh and Japan). In these countries large-scale repatriation may cause the greatest suffering.

Resenting returnees

Aggregate data tends to hide widespread human deprivation. The effects on returnees and their families can be devastating, but there is also the ripple effect of such income loss.

The economic benefits from labour migration accrue not only to migrants and their families but are widely shared by the communities from which they come, affecting the household, kin networks, institutional linkages and personal ties between home and host countries, as well as non-migrants.

The shock is compounded by the general absence of any safety-net for the poor and unemployed back home. While any savings are fast depleted, returnees can expect little redress from their governments.

Nor do these countries have programmes and policies which can translate remittances and returned migrants into sparkplugs for job-creation. Indeed, even where government programmes have assisted returned migrants this is often resented by non-migrants who are ineligible for such assistance.

The large scale return of migrant workers is also likely to have a broader sociocultural impact. As labour migration to other countries prompts social adjustments, so their sudden return can be equally, if not more divisive.

While even temporary out-migration has consequences for social structure and community values, the changed socio-economic status of the suddenly repatriated migrant and family can intensify tensions.

For instance, in the South Indian state of Kerala where social stratification is rigid, migration has acted as an important catalyst for social change. Low ranking groups have improved their local standing through assets accumulated from work abroad. But for unskilled migrants in particular, their return to pre-migration work threatens their aspirations for social advancement.

There is also the related problem of ‘de-skilling’, where the plight of female migrants is especially keen. For instance, ninety per cent of Filipino women workers in Asia with teaching or secretarial qualifications enter their host countries as domestic servants or ‘entertainers’. Yet these skills are often useless on their return home.

Bonded to debt

The effects of interrupted employment abroad are particularly severe for those workers trapped in debt-bondage. For these people, the economic crisis may even herald a lifetime of indebtedness.

It is common for illegal migrant workers in particular to enter into debt bondage to finance a passage to, and secure jobs in, labour importing countries. Indeed, labour smuggling in Asia is a lucrative business that generates US$5-7 billion per annum. Repatriation and unemployment will only intensify hardship for migrants as they struggle to repay debts.

In some cases, their fate may be integration in the criminal underworld. As desperation links poverty to illegal activities, migrants are forced into petty crime, drug peddling or prostitution.

Approximately one third of the illegal immigrants in Japan in 1995 were women – many forced into prostitution after being recruited in Thailand. The trafficking of women and children in Pakistan relies on the 100-150 women who enter the country illegally every day, mostly from Bangladesh and Burma. Now, as the economic crisis intensifies, pressure will increase for poor female migrants to follow a similar path.

Back to oppression

The economic crisis may also enhance social and cultural divisions within fragile political communities. Frequently, migration is related to ethnic and religious policies at home, with ethnic minorities fleeing. But when these people are sent home, they face both economic and political uncertainty.

The plight of the Shan of north-east Burma (Myanmar) is a case in point. These people account for two thirds of the 1.5 million economic migrants in Thailand. Their return to Burma spells not only penury but the likelihood of forced labour and involuntary inclusion in the Burmese government’s war against ethnic insurgents.

Similar problems of re-assimilation linked to cultural oppression may affect the forty per cent of South Korea’s 370,000 foreign workers who are ethnic Koreans but who must return to China.

Countries which are high volume exporters of labour such as Indonesia (3 million) and the Philippines (2 million), risk social and political instability from large numbers of returning workers. Their already battered economies will have to absorb significant losses of foreign exchange while governments deal with the social consequences of rising unemployment and civil unrest.

The problems are most acute in Indonesia because of the already volatile political situation: over 6 million unemployed and rising; simmering ethnic and religious tensions; impoverished rural areas still reeling from drought and even famine; and the question of President Suharto’s succession.

Troubles left behind

While the effects of Asia’s economic crisis are likely to be greatest in home countries, erstwhile host countries will also experience major socio-economic adjustments.

In theory, massive and swift repatriation may stem the anticipated rise of unemployment as workers replace returnees in selected fields. Certainly, one benefit of repatriating large numbers of migrant workers is the reduced security needed to monitor temporary residents. Yet, adjusting to the crisis entails much more than ordering guest workers home. Local pain is not to be so easily avoided.

To begin with, there will be considerable disruption of the labour market, particularly at the ‘low’ or unskilled end. Traditionally, migrants have been indispensable in sectors which domestic workers shun because they are ‘dirty, difficult and or dangerous’. So at least part of the domestic work-force may need to be re-tailored from a white collar culture to blue collar jobs – primarily in agriculture, construction, textiles and services. Such social engineering would be no mean feat considering the highly educated population. Many Asian governments have based their legitimacy on securing the material improvement and social mobility of their constituents.

Unsuccessful economic re-structuring threatens to decimate whole industries. Malaysian plans to reduce its dependence on the 2 million foreign workers who make up fifteen per cent of the labour force, threaten the future of entire sectors such as construction and services which have been largely sustained by them. Thailand’s fishing industry is virtually entirely dependent on foreign labour – seventy per cent of its fisheries workers come from Burma, for example.

Women’s work

Especially hard hit in host countries, will be women who might be forced into less remunerative or culturally desirable work. This also holds implications for the sexual division of labour and the socio-economic position of women in those countries.

Importing unskilled labour, particularly females as domestic workers, allowed more local women to work. Host countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea lack alternative child and geriatric care so that participation may now be under threat.

Yet the impact is also cultural. Since the presence of a domestic maid, for example, is often seen as evidence of the family’s social affluence and achievement, the sudden loss of such help may entail a loss of social status too.

The invisibles

A further difficulty faced by host governments, is ensuring that migrants do return home. Much economic migration in Asia is illegal and hard for the authorities to keep track of.

Furthermore for countries like Malaysia or Thailand, porous borders inevitably make migration difficult to control. Cross border historical, ethnic and religious affinities – as in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia – allow hundreds of thousands of Indonesian migrants to be ‘invisible’, complicating repatriation. Such affinities also stymie the promotion of vigorous anti-illegal immigration policies.

Returning surplus labour is thus a highly political process. It would take a ruthlessly efficient state with vast economic resources to return thousands of unregistered and evasive workers. Even if the authoritarian governments of East and Southeast Asia had the will, their current economic woes prevent them financing such exercises.

Hence the likely scenario is that many will ‘go to ground’ to avoid deportation. In the process, there is an increased possibility that these people may be linked to the criminal underworld, exacerbating law and order issues.


The displacement of Asian migrant labour has political implications for the region. Widening economic and demographic gaps between neighbouring labour exporting and importing countries threaten the region’s political and economic future.

The new regional reality, where the concentration of capital is inconsistent with the concentration of political power and abundant labour, has the potential for fomenting bilateral tension or even regional disputes.7

Indeed, the regulation of migrants by both Singapore and Malaysia has previously caused problems with labour supplying neighbours such as Thailand and the Philippines. The severe strain in relations produced by Singapore’s caning of illegal Thai workers, or its hanging of a Filipino maid convicted of murder in 1995, are cases in point.

Yet, extreme policy measures – such as Malaysia’s projected repatriation of 850,000 workers to Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, or Thailand’s intention to evict some 1.5 million workers, mainly to Burma – can only exacerbate tensions between states. ‘Victimised’ states are likely to do little more than boycott goods produced in the other country or mount official protests. Yet, such ‘tit-for-tat’ diplomacy threatens to sour wider regional relations. Asia’s economic crisis has been provocatively dubbed ‘creative destruction’since it might facilitate substantial regional economic planning and hence long-term stability. None the less, the issue of migrant labour – legal and illegal – may suggest a less sanguine view.

That Asian countries have demonstrated an all too frequent unwillingness to manage migration co-operatively bodes ill for the future resolution of repatriation issues. Indeed, the combination of a lack of reliable data, host country reluctance to acknowledge the scale of their own dependence on economic migrants and/or the harsh treatment of foreigners by host states, constitutes a formidable hurdle to co-operation.

The few bilateral agreements on migrant flows that do exist (eg. between Malaysia and Indonesia) rarely seek to protect the workers. Further, there is little redress from international sources for the aggrieved economic migrant. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers protects their civil and social (but not political) rights. Yet, regulatory instruments remain ineffectual as long as they lack a mechanism for adherence and enforcement. Just as the smog in Southeast Asia tested regional environmental relations, the projected repatriation of migrant workers may be the litmus test of Asian economic co-operation.

The permanent temp

The acceleration of Asian population mobility has been one dimension of the region’s recent rapid economic transformation. This is not unique and to some extent re-enacts processes seen elsewhere, notably in Europe and North America.

Such experience indicates that patterns of migration broadly mirror economic cycles. Yet, the apparent historical necessity of economic migration has engendered the aphorism, ‘there is nothing more permanent than the temporary worker.’ Rather than being a transient phenomenon, migrant workers are thus a structural feature of labour markets in today’s globalised economy.

That is not to say that these are grounds for complacency at this time of crisis. The appalling status of the economic migrant, intensified during economic downturns, remains a running indictment of political and economic leadership. There is clearly a need for policies which address trans-national labour as more than just a commodity. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) envisages the marketable commodification of labour on a universal scale – in virtually diametrical opposition to the International Labour Organization’s view of the migrant worker.

Balancing the costs against the benefits of labour migration is difficult because there is no agreement on what those costs and benefits are. The human and social cost of large-scale economic migration is often a small factor in economic policies but it should not be ignored. Indeed, the ultimate social cost of continued large scale migration might be the development of a class of helots, or serfs. Thus the long term question prompted by Asia’s current economic crisis is simply this: as the world economy is globalised, can it also be humanised?