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UN Agency Recommends Exporting Labor to Cut Asia Unemployment

Despite Asia's fast economic growth, unemployment in the region has increased over the past decade. The United Nations' Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) says one possible remedy is the temporary export of workers.

The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific is concerned that many countries in the region are achieving high economic growth without creating enough new jobs. In some parts of Asia, according to UNESCAP, the number of people without jobs has more than doubled in the past decade.

The agency says one option countries with high unemployment should explore is to promote the temporary export of workers, as part of their development and poverty-reduction strategies.

Shahid Ahmed, an economist at UNESCAP in Bangkok, says the region would benefit from such a policy.

"First of all, it would have a major impact on poverty, and secondly it would also be a more efficient way of utilizing labor in the region as well as elsewhere," he said

Migrant organizations, however, are skeptical. They say the export of labor can ease unemployment in the short term. But they say that unless governments couple such programs with economic restructuring and job creation at home, a temporary migration policy can turn into a permanent one. The Philippines' labor export program, for example, started as a temporary measure in the 1970s but is now a permanent feature of the country's labor policy.

Rex Varona, executive director of the Asian Migrant Center in Hong Kong, says labor export is a dangerous policy because it can prevent governments from tackling the causes of poverty and unemployment.

"In the long run, as is the case of the Philippines, the export of labor does not solve the problem because it only perpetuates and worsens the local unemployment situation," noted Varona.

Varona says countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are looking at making labor migration a permanent feature of their development plans.

Another organization, the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants in Hong Kong, says they are worried that an increasing number of migrants competing on regional labor markets could lead to lower salaries and worsened working conditions. Many migrant workers already work for 12 to 18 hours a day for very low pay, with few protections from abusive bosses.

UNESCAP, however, says the money migrant workers send home not only helps their families, it also adds to their countries' foreign exchange earnings, enabling them to boost imports and spur growth.

Migrant organizations, however, think that remittances lull governments into a false sense of security and prevent them from tackling economic problems. Varona points out that three decades of remittances have not reduced poverty in the Philippines. Other experts warn that if the exported workers include professionals such as teachers, doctors and engineers, countries wind up without the skilled personnel they need to build their own economies.