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Global trade slump hits Asian labor

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This crisis hits workers hardest

The last time a major crisis swept the region in 1997-98, wealthy speculators in real-estate and financial securities were the first to take a hit. Bankers in Bangkok, ground zero of the meltdown, saw their assets – and bonuses – shrivel in value, triggering a collapse in the real economy.

By contrast, the current crisis has spared banks but hammered the industrial sector, particularly in export-oriented provinces like Rayong, a magnet for workers from the rural north. That means more hardship for poor families who rely on these breadwinners to tide them over after the harvest is sold.

"This time the economic shock will hit people at the level of the most vulnerable," says Ammar Siamwalla, a prominent Thai economist who advises the government.

Sema Suebtrakul, who runs a legal aid center for workers in Rayong, estimates that factories in the area have shed about 10,000 jobs since December. At the provincial labor office, which last year saw under 100 applicants a day, more than 700 people crowd inside on busy days to register for work.

The Thai government has said national unemployment could double this year to 1 million. Some economists say this prediction underestimates the global collapse in trade. Last year, exports of goods and services accounted for 73 percent of Thai GDP. In the last quarter of 2008, the economy shrank by 6 percent.

Slim pickings in the countryside

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