With a severe blow by SARS, the economies of several countries are forecast to shrink in the second quarter. More than five million foreign workers, from Filipina maids to Indonesian laborers and Vietnamese plantation workers, oil the wheels of commerce in the region, sending home in excess of $20 billion each year to their families. Studies show most of those families used the remittances for consumption buying cars and building new houses directly improving standards of living and boosting their local economies. Among the throng of migrating laborers, an estimated 210,000 Thais left home to work abroad in 2000, as did 416,424 Indians, 376,000 Indonesians, 841,000 Filipinos and 31,000 Vietnamese, according to the most recent United Nations data.
Many of the countries and territories they head for, including Singapore and Hong Kong, are among the hardest hit by SARS, which has killed more than 260 people worldwide and infected some 4,600 since it emerged in China late last year. In Singapore, foreign workers make up 24 percent of the labor force. Seven percent of workers in Hong Kong are foreign. China doesn't take in many foreign workers, but quite large numbers of Chinese go abroad, essentially illegally, to Japan and Taiwan. With the smuggling of Chinese workers into these countries, there is huge potential for spreading the disease. Japan has some 600,000 foreign workers. While SARS so far appeared to be mainly spread by business travellers and holiday-makers, taking a huge toll on the airline and leisure industries, governments also needed to rethink the way they handled migrant workers to prevent them from succumbing to the disease and accelerating its spread.