East Asia's Dynamic, Changing Labor Patterns

It has since been denied by Seoul, but the announcement by the small southern African state of Malawi that it was to send large numbers of workers to South Korea has focused attention on the enormous, interrelated issues in east Asia of labor shortage, migration, marriage and race.

For sure, the once-hermit kingdom is now home to about 1.5 million foreigners, or 2.8 percent of the population. But half of those are Chinese of Korean ethnic background and although workers from 15 countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, are eligible for permits under the labor import scheme, most are from east Asia -- Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and Mongolia. For Korea to extend its reach for labor to Africa would be a first for any east Asian country and may be a pointer to how much the east Asian region will have to change to face up to the challenges of aging populations and ultra low birth rates.

It is worth recalling how labor migrations over the past 150 years have had huge consequences, many of which were unforeseen. While generally beneficial they have changed the political and social dynamics of major countries. The Chinese are of course the prime example of this, hundreds of thousands, almost all male, migrating whether as free settlers, as indentured labor or as victims of the kidnap gangs which flourished in the hinterlands of export ports such as Amoy. Large numbers of Indians similarly migrated, mostly as indentured laborers, though some as employees of the colonial powers.

Destinations of Chinese were as diverse as the cane fields of the Kingdom of Hawaii (before the US takeover), Fiji and the Caribbean, the gold fields of California and Australia, and all of southeast Asia under colonial rulers who took a benign view of the Chinese influx. There was immense supply of surplus Chinese labor and immense potential demand. Colonial governments wanting to see the development of plantations and mines were mostly supportive but a similar phenomenon was also visible in Siam as Chinese flooded into Bangkok in particular.

In short, supply was meeting demand without government playing much of a role. The same phenomenon is apparent today in the influx of Burmese and Cambodians into a Thailand with an increasing shortage of labor for the dirty, dangerous or ill-paid work on fishing boats, construction sites, factories and domestic service.

Most of those 19th century and contemporary Burmese migrants imagined that they would return home after making some money and enabling them to find a wife. But reality was different. Most of the earlier generations of Chinese migrants ended up staying, some doing well enough to import a wife or marry a local girl.

In most of recipient East Asia - Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore labor import is very tightly regulated to try to limit duration of stay and ethnic and other origins to those deemed compatible with local society. Thus most low-skilled labor is still imported from nearby countries, especially Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines on short term contracts which usually cannot be converted into permanent residence. In the extreme case of Singapore, 34 percent of the workforce is non-resident. Of these 1,268 million, 510,000 are low-paid workers in the construction and domestic sectors, providing a huge implicit subsidy to the living standards of citizens and permanent residents. In Hong Kong some 7 percent of the workforce is similarly under low paid, short term contract, in Taiwan 3.5 percent and in Korea about 1 percent. Korea now has 1.5 million foreigners, 2.8 percent of the population. Although half of these are Chinese of Korean ethnic origin, the number of others is growing apace. Vietnamese comprise 8 percent, Filipinos and Thais 4 percent each and Mongolians 3 percent of the foreign population. It is generally thought that numbers will continue to rise, at least in the service sector, with care-giving supplanting manufacturing as the main employment.

In Southeast Asia too labor migration has an impact. Burmese and Cambodian workers in Thailand might stay only temporarily if development of their homelands proceeds apace, but migration into (and out of) Malaysia has already altered the political map.

Quite what the long-term result of this dependence will be is far from clear. At the extreme cases which may apply in some oil rich Gulf countries where a small indigenous group lords it over huge migrant worker populations, a "slave revolt" may not be out of the question. The implications for labor-importing east Asia are more subtle.

To the shortage of workers is being added a shortage of women who want to marry, whether because there is a surplus of boys or because educated women prefer independence. But this raises the question whether these countries will in the not too distant future have to look further afield for wives. At present, foreign brides - more than 10 percent of marriages in Korea and Taiwan - are mostly from China and Vietnam. The percentage of foreign brides in Taiwan used to be much higher till the government introduced restrictive rules.

Times also times change. The Thai bride supply has largely dried up, China faces a domestic bride shortage of unprecedented proportions due to there being 15 percent more boys than girls in age groups under 20 years. The Vietnamese peasant urge to marry aging Korean farmers will wane as the economy develops.

That can only mean a shift away from marriage integration among fellow Confucian-based countries to the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma, and maybe beyond. That prospect has already resulted in Korea, once the stoutest bastion of ethnocentric nationalism becoming much more open to other cultures and races than seemed possible a decade or two ago. Labor supply from southeast Asia generally is not going to last forever. Vietnam and Indonesia have for some years had fertility rates which will bring stabilization of population and hence enhanced prospects for those who stay home.

Meanwhile bride import is doing relatively little for the birth rate. In Korea foreign brides have even fewer children than local ones, a fact variously attributed to poverty, social discrimination or the age difference - an average of 17 years between Koreans males and their imported brides.

The prospects of China being able to make up for its lack of girls by importing from them Southeast Asia is negligible. A few thousand a year may move from the impoverished parts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma to enjoy a more prosperous life in China but that is tiny relative to prospective demand. For now China remains a labor exporter, but probably not for much longer. Whether its government ever imports labor on a significant scale is questionable. But governments cannot do much about male demands for females.

In short, the era when prosperous east Asia could draw upon immediate neighbors for cheap labor and countries with Confucian backgrounds and similar physiques for brides is gradually coming to an end at a time when demand is likely to increase. In the first instance it will mean erosion of the sense of superiority towards the darker, Malay peoples of the region as brides are increasingly sought from there.

But at the same time there will be a growing need to look further afield for cheap labor. Korea already takes some workers from Bangladesh, and more from South Asia are likely to follow. Southern Africa may seem a step too far for now but surely cannot be ruled out. Of course it may be at least a generation, if ever, before getting brides from Bangladesh, let alone Malawi, is acceptable in Korea. But small, open countries which engage heavily with the rest of the world often find that economic and other dynamics create changes on one intended. For example 6 percent of Britain's population is now of South Asian origin compared with almost zero in 1955 and a significant and growing level of inter-marriage between whites and non-whites - other than Muslims.

The Asian influx mainly stemmed from a demand for cheap labor to try to keep textile industries in business coinciding with events following the end of empire -- most British Pakistanis originally came from Mirpur, a region flooded by the Mangla dam which was built to implement the Indus waters agreement. Sikhs were mostly those driven from Pakistani Punjab, and mostly Hindu Asians were driven out of formerly British-ruled East Africa in the 1960s and 70s by newly independent governments.

In Germany about 4 percent of the population is now of Turkish origin thanks to a "guestworker" program which was supposed to provide labor but not permanent residence. But any country which gets hooked on cheap imported labor finds it almost impossible to reverse course. Needless to say this can create all kinds of social problems of the sort which do not occur to the same extent in countries such as the US with a history of in-migration from diverse sources. But the economic (and sexual) forces of labor and bride supply and demand and price have a way of blind-siding the best laid plans of governments.

Meanwhile one country tries to lean against the trend - and loses out badly as a result. Only 2 percent of Malaysians marry foreigners thanks to a mix of racial and religious bias that discourages it and denies work to foreign spouses. Meanwhile educated Malaysians migrate in droves to freer countries where racism is not enshrined in law.

Issues of demographics and labor demand have altered east Asia very significantly over the past 150 years. The process will continue and may even speed up, helped by east Asia's growing role in global commerce. So while at present the Chinese may be flocking to Ghana and elsewhere in Africa to make their fortunes from gold and other minerals, don't be surprised if large numbers of Malawians, to name just one country, start to be seen in the factories and care homes of east Asia.