Reverse Migration

The Washington Post has a story about workers who had left their native countries to find work heading home again:

“Thousands of foreign workers, including London School of Economics graduates with six-digit salaries and desperately poor Bangladeshi factory workers, are streaming home as the economy here suffers the worse recession in Southeast Asia. Singapore is an epicenter of what analysts call a new flow of reverse migration away from hard-hit, globalized economies including Dubai and Britain that were once beacons for foreign labor. Economists from Credit Suisse predict an exodus of 200,000 foreigners — or one in every 15 workers here — by the end of 2010.

As exports crash worldwide, factories from China to Eastern Europe are shuttering. The World Bank estimates the crisis will trap at least 53 million more people in the developing world in poverty this year. (…)

Remittances — the financial lifelines sent home by foreign workers — are falling from Latin America to Central Asia. The drop has been so sharp in Kyrgyzstan, which relies on remittances for 27 percent of its gross domestic product, that the U.N. World Food Program was asked to rush in emergency food aid in November for the first time since 1992. “This is a new income hit to people who can afford it the least,” said Josette Sheeran, the program’s executive director.”

Some of the stories are heartwrenching:

“Over the past eight years, textile and shoe factories in the Thai capital of Bangkok boomed, churning out Levi’s jeans and Reebok sneakers to meet record demand in the United States and Europe. When orders bested their capacity to fill them, Bangkok factories subcontracted work to new factories that sprouted up on Thailand’s long and porous western border. Facing a repressive government under U.S. sanctions, thousands of Burmese risked their lives in a quest for jobs in Thailand. Lamin, a 25-year-old with traditional yellow wood dust applied to her delicate copper face, was one of them.

An orphan living with relatives who could no longer support her, Lamin spirited herself across the Mae Sot river in an inner tube in late 2006. She landed work easily in a Thai factory making linings for pants with 800 other women. Working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, she earned $100 a month. Thirty percent went back to her employer to cover room and board. She still managed to send money home and pocket almost $20 to $30 a month. “Yes, it was tough” said Lamin, who goes by one name, “but it was still better than Burma.”

When the global economy went code red, Thailand’s exports collapsed. In December, the factory where Lamin worked began losing contracts. In mid-February, her employer joined dozens of others shutting down in the region and adding to a swelling refugee crisis. All 800 Burmese workers at Lamin’s job site were fired.

Tucking away her $350 life savings, she tried to join many of her jobless co-workers crossing back into Burma. On the way, she was shaken down by Thai police conducting crackdowns in the area as public opinion shifts against foreign workers in hard economic times. Now penniless, she is living in a half-way house in a dusty corner of town, sleeping on a concert floor and hoping to persuade her old employer to fund her return home.

“I don’t want to go back to Burma. It is a horror, there is only poverty, no jobs,” she said, eyes downcast as she spoke through a translator. “They only wanted us in Thailand when they needed us. Now, they just want us gone.””

I wonder whether the people who put the financial system at risk spared a thought for people like Lamin. Somehow, I suspect not. And yet she will pay a much higher price than any of them will. Because as bad as it is here, it is much, much worse elsewhere.

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