Thursday, November 20, 2008

Burmese Workers Head Home as Recession Begins to Bite

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON — Burmese workers are rapidly losing the last economic lifeline available to them—employment in the more vibrant economies of other Asian countries.

As the deepening recession takes hold in the world’s fastest-growing region, many companies are cutting jobs and reducing work hours in a bid to survive the crisis. For many Burmese employed in countries such as China, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, this means fewer job prospects and, in many cases, a one-way ticket back to Burma.

“Some general laborers have already returned from Malaysia, the most popular destination for Burmese working abroad,” said the director of an overseas employment agency in Rangoon.

“In many sectors, from commodities to furniture and electronics manufacturing, companies are laying off workers and cutting back on overtime pay,” he added.

“This has put low-paid workers in a difficult position, giving them little choice but to pack up and return to Burma.”

The situation is much the same in Singapore, where the downturn has hit everything from manufacturing and retail jobs to the financial sector and the tourism and transport industries.

“I was working for a subcontractor, but I lost my job earlier this month,” said a Burmese man who worked at an air-conditioner factory. “I was paid 500 Singapore dollars (US $327) per month for 5 months. Now I cannot repay my debts.”

Most Burmese workers pay substantial sums to employment agencies for the privilege of having jobs that pay far more than they can earn at home. A general labor position, for instance, typically costs US $850-1,650 (depending on the job and the country). In many cases, workers borrow money or mortgage their homes to pay the agencies.

“I took out a 1.5 million kyat ($1,180) mortgage on my father’s house to pay for a job overseas,” said one man who had recently returned from Malaysia. “Now I have to do my best to find another job abroad so I can pay back the interest.”

But that isn’t going to be easy. According to the director of one employment agency, there have been no new orders from overseas employers since October. Moreover, he added, many of those who were working a month ago have returned as a result of job cutbacks.

The loss of this income from abroad is expected to have a significant impact on Burma’s economy, which is barely able to support the country’s population.

“Families depending on overseas remittances will be in a very tough situation,” said a professor of economics. “They will have no way to pay back their debts. If unemployed workers can’t find new jobs, there will be problems in the economy.”

He added that the country’s military government has so far taken no actions to mitigate the effects of the global slowdown on the local economy. It was especially important, he said, to create new job opportunities.

There are estimated to be around three million Burmese working outside the country, around half of whom are legally employed. The rest are illegal migrants working mainly in Thailand and China.

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