SALAYSAY: Teachers say Asia grappling to balance migration, crisis-hit labor market (First of two parts)

PASIG CITY, Philippines-PROFESSORS studying labor migration in Asia said countries in the region will scuttle to protect their economies but avoid edging out foreign workers as a global financial collapse seeps into real sectors.

One of them is Dr. Yap Mui Teng of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy under the National University of Singapore.

Dr. Teng says that while Southeast Asia’s financial hub will experience a “sharp economic downturn that is the most severe in the country’s history,” it will still need foreign workers in Singapore.

As countries across the world grapple with the catatonic effects of a global financial crisis, nation-states witness the decapitation of their respective labor markets.

Dr. Teng says it is unavoidable that companies cut costs and fire foreign workers first and nationals last: Singapore companies forecast a minus five percent gross domestic product growth rate for this year.

What’s currently happening in Singapore, says Dr. Teng, is that more foreign workers are complaining of unclaimed salaries, being subjected to “no work, no pay” situations. He adds there are some instances of repatriation if manpower agencies cannot place these foreign workers.

Dr. Teng affirmed forecasts of analysts that an expected 50,000 foreign workers will lose their jobs this year, especially those in the manufacturing and construction sectors.

An estimated 143,000 highly-skilled foreign workers in Singapore hold employment passes. In addition, an estimated 757,000 semi-skilled foreign workers hold work permits. The latter category include domestic workers.

A recent World Bank report on its outlook for East Asia and the Pacific region affirms Dr. Teng’s views.

“As unemployment in the region and around the world begins to climb, migrant workers, wherever they are, are likely to be among the first to lose their jobs,” the report titled “Battling the forces of global recession” said.

Report writer Ivailo Izvorski added this “will mean lower remittance flows to the poorest countries in the region and, if the migrants return home, a worsening unemployment in those countries as well as further downward pressure on real wages, especially in the informal sector that would directly affect the poor.”

Malaysia

NEAR Singapore is Malaysia, which Dr. Vijayamukari Kanapathy says is also feeling the pinch.

Dr. Kanapathy said migrant workers will be among the 400,000 workers that her country’s employers federations forecast to be laid off this year.

The situation is especially glaring for Malaysia’s manufacturing sector, whose biggest market is recession-hit United States.

The policy responses of Malaysia’s government for migrant workers is that they will be terminated first, that there’s freeze hiring of migrant workers, and that the deportation of undocumented migrants will be fast-tracked, Kanapathy said.

A bright spot, Kanapathy adds, is that the crisis may possibly see the government regularizing some of the undocumented workers in Malaysia’s informal sector.

But Malaysia is “extremely cautious,” she says, in dealing with migrant workers as it has a “soft policy” to encourage these foreign workers to leave Malaysia.

And since migrant workers hold an annual work permit, “it is easy for Malaysian employers to retrench them,” Kanapathy said.

As of September 2008, Kanapathy says Malaysia has retrenched an estimated 5,5867 migrant workers -majority of whom were in the manufacturing sector. She said she didn’t have the data on which country these workers came from.

Thailand

ANOTHER country is politically-rocked Thailand, which is both a sending and a receiving country of migrants and refugees.

Dr. Supang Chantavanich of the Asian Research Center on Migration based in Chulalongkorn University said she expects an increased hiring of construction workers and domestic workers amid the crisis.

It is only these two sectors’ migrant workers who will not be affected by the crisis “due to increasing needs for them,” she added.

Chantavanich said Thailand currently has 76,206 foreign construction workers and 53,933 foreign domestic workers.

It is likely possible, however, that the Thai government will not extend the work permits of some 200,000 documented migrant workers come the year 2010, and that Thai nationals will be hired first.

If foreign workers wish to extend their work permits, “they have to apply through Thai line government agencies,” she added.

(To be concluded)