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As Job Losses Mount, Asian Workers Return to the Countryside

Millions of Asian workers are losing their jobs because of the global economic downturn. After many years of urban job creation, governments are scrambling to find work in the countryside for the unemployed.

Reports of factory closures across the region are increasing. Most job cuts are happening in the manufacturing sector - from toy makers to automakers. Production has either ceased or slowed down because of the global economic crisis.

Suparat Sirisuwanangkura, head of the Thai Auto Industry Association, says the industry - which employs 300,000 workers - is trying hard to hold onto workers. But production is expected to fall 20 to 30 percent this year.

"We don't have any plans to shut down any plants. But, of course, we have to adjust many things - no overtime or very few," said Suparat. "The two shifts may try to make it one shift. The last one we, as much as possible, try to avoid is reduction of manpower."

Governments across Asia are worried about mass unemployment and the social instability that could bring. Many of those losing their jobs are migrant workers, who have left the provinces to work in Asia's booming cities.

In China, their numbers are staggering and they are returning in large numbers to their hometowns. Geoffrey Crothall is the spokesman of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, an organization involved in workers' rights in China.

"Some official figures are saying the number of people who lost their jobs [last year] is around eight million, most of whom are migrant workers," said Crothall. "If you put that in the context of the number of migrant workers in China - which is usually estimated at 130 million - that gives you some idea of the scale of the lay-offs at the moment."

Some governments are hoping that new investments in the countryside could help ease employment pressures.

Beijing is hoping its $600 billion stimulus plan, with its huge spending on infrastructure in the provinces, can help absorb some of these workers. But between six to seven-million new graduates will be added to the labor force in the next few months.

The government is offering to refund college education expenses for graduates willing to work in the rural areas.

Crothall says the stakes are high for Beijing.

"If these workers cannot be re-employed, the potential for social unrest increases and the government is very well aware of that," he said.

In Japan, the government is also offering work in farms to unemployed young Japanese, as a way to build a new generation of farmers.

In Thailand, Jaded Chowtchilai, a labor activist who helps unemployed women workers, says dismissed workers are trying their luck in the provinces.

"I think most of them try to find a job; but, it's difficult," said Jaded. "Some jobs are far away, in another province. Some of them go to countryside, go to the farmland."

With the Thai government promising greater incentives to farmers, as part of its economic stimulus plan, this may be where hope lies for the thousands losing their livelihoods.

Farm incomes in the region have fallen, as agricultural commodity prices dropped from their record highs last year. Some Asian officials say jobs will have to eventually return in the industrial sector for the labor market to stabilize.