On the Road Again: the Global Recession Scatters Workers

On the Road Again: the Global Recession Scatters Workers

During China’s boom years, the lure of Beijing was irresistible for tens of thousands of South Koreans. With trade and investment between China and South Korea soaring, businessmen flocked to the Chinese capital seeking their fortunes; students, eager to learn Chinese, flooded into local universities. They collected in areas like Wangjing, an upscale neighborhood in the city’s northeast, where some 80,000 Koreans settled.

Now, with the global economy mired in recession, they’re leaving. Business opportunities have dried up as China’s growth slows, while the plunging value of Korea’s currency, the won, has made it too expensive for many to stay. According to the Beijing-based Koreans in China Association, about a quarter of Wangjing’s South Koreans have departed since late 2008. In the Wudaokou area, a popular hangout for South Korean college kids, restaurants and karaoke parlors are suffering. The Xiangzhu Fang restaurant, which serves Korean-style barbecue, hosted a mere two couples one recent lunchtime. “Many Korean students are moving out and some are dropping out of school to go home,” says Kim Ji Youn, an undergraduate studying at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “It is really a tough time for us.”

Beijing’s South Koreans are just a small part of a vast, restless army that fanned out around the world in search of better lives during the opening years of the 21st century — an army that is now on the move. As jobs disappear and opportunities dwindle amid the economic crisis, millions of expatriate factory workers, bankers, household servants and construction crews are facing dislocation and despair. Some of the newly unemployed are clinging desperately to their adopted countries, hoping their prospects will improve. But tens of thousands of workers from developing countries who ventured overseas for jobs in globalization’s boomtowns are being forced to return home, putting a strain on local resources and threatening to undo some of the progress made in recent years in the alleviation of poverty. “Globalization created greater mobility across borders as some countries benefited from freer trade,” says William Gois, regional coordinator of the Migrant Forum in Asia, a migrant-rights advocacy group in Manila. “The current economic crisis is evidence that there were big winners and a huge number of losers.”

When economies were roaring, there were mostly winners. Heady growth created labor shortages in many places that were eased by foreign manpower. In the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau , a surge of investment in casinos and double-digit economic growth several years ago created a demographic bulge: nonresident workers in Macau quadrupled between 2003 and September 2008 to more than 104,000. Singapore’s population increased by 20% between 2000 and 2008 as an expanding financial sector and construction activity drew in expatriates.

Societies were transformed by this migration. In the United Arab Emirates, an oil-driven boom attracted so many foreigners that by last year only 19% of the population was native born. The U.A.E.’s premier city, Dubai, was changed from a sleepy Arab port to a bustling metropolis where liberal Westerners coexisted uneasily with conservative, devout Muslims. Similar shifts, although few as dramatic, took place all over the world. The number of migrants working outside their native countries worldwide rose from 165 million in the mid-1990s to about 200 million last year, according to the U.N. and other sources.

Today, some stumbling economies are witnessing an exodus. The number of nonresident workers in Macau sank by nearly 15,000 between October and February. A January study by investment bank Credit Suisse predicts that 200,000 people could leave Singapore by 2010, further reducing consumer spending and depressing property prices. Investment bank EFG-Hermes predicts that Dubai’s population could drop 15% this year as the city’s property market and finance industry sour. Used-car lots in Dubai are crammed with BMWs and Mercedes dumped by fleeing professionals. “I’ve got no space, no one has any money and no one’s buying,” says one car salesman. A government-run auction is doing a brisk business selling vehicles that have been either repossessed or simply abandoned at the Dubai airport. Storefronts in Satwa district, an area popular with Filipinos who work as waiters and maids in the nearby skyscraper alley of Sheikh Zayed Road, are covered with homemade flyers announcing “Bed space for bachelors” and “Room for Filipino ladies.”

Homeward Bound
Most of the world’s migrants go abroad because there are few job prospects in their home countries. Now the economic crisis is forcing many to return, and poverty awaits them back in the villages. So it has been with Michael dela Cruz. In 2004, the Filipino electrician left his hometown of Hagonoy outside Manila to become a machine operator on the assembly line of a South Korean car-parts factory. The $1,600 he earned there each month allowed his wife to rent a house and put two of their three children into private school.

See TIME’s photos of e-waste in China.