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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


The real stories of middle-class victims of the Crisis and how they are coping with unemployment

YOU'RE FIRED. THOSE OMINOUS words are ringing in the ears of more and more middle-class folk these days. From South Korea and Japan to Thailand and the Philippines, people are being downsized, retrenched, voluntarily retired, laid off - call it what you like. In the end it means much the same - crushing depression, reduced circumstances, family angst, epic losses of face. The people you will read about here did not deserve to get fired. Global forces beyond anyone's control made them redundant. Which makes their stories that much more poignant. And if you think we're exaggerating, think again: It could happen to you.


By John Larkin/Seoul

WOO Ha Geun's private Armageddon began when the South Korean government closed Daedong Bank as part of its campaign to reform the ailing financial sector. Woo had worked at Daedong for nine years as a loans officer. Suddenly he was unemployed in a nation of lifetime employment. Woo went from lending people money to hawking dried cuttlefish and chestnuts on the street.

The June lay-off was a profound shock. At the bank, Woo routinely worked 10-hour days and took it for granted that he would socialize with clients well into the evening. That was how it worked in South Korea. "The bank was my life," says Woo. "My entire family was shocked beyond words. I felt betrayed by my own bank, but the betrayal of the government was greater."

Woo, 42, sold the family car and cut expenses to the bone. And with two kids - 15-year-old son Hyeung Joo and 10-year-old daughter Eun Bin - Woo knew he could not afford the luxury of self-pity. Shrugging off prevailing prejudices against menial work, he set up a street stall in central Seoul - a vocation that is normally the preserve of older women, or ajumas.

This was no cushy desk job. Woo rose at 6 a.m. each day to prepare the cuttlefish and chestnuts and then stood at his cart for 12 hours. It was physically exhausting. His reward for all this labor: about $1,200 a month - a quarter of what he had made as a loans officer. For three months Woo soldiered on - until the company that managed the stalls in his area doubled the monthly rent for his patch of pavement to 2 million won ($1,600).

Now, as Woo searches for better employment, he is helping run several stalls. Not that this has eased his family's privations. Both children have been forced to quit their nightly cramming classes, or hagwon - considered mandatory in education-obsessed South Korea. Now Woo tutors the children himself, saving more than $200 a month. He couldn't bring himself to wind up Hyeung Joo's taekwondo, however, nor Eun Bin's piano lessons. "It was just too much to ask," he says. "I couldn't take away their happiness."

The whole family joined in the belt-tightening effort. Hyeung Joo offered to give up his 5,000-won (about $4) weekly allowance (he was finally persuaded to take 3,000 won) and Eun Bin stopped buying dolls and school supplies. Adds their dad: "We don't eat out or go to shows anymore." Household expenses have been slashed; anything not strictly necessary goes. The home phone was cut off, expensive meat meals are a thing of the past, and heating is strictly rationed.

Remarkably, Woo doesn't seem bitter, despite mounting worries that his cash crunch is about to get far more serious. The $805 he gets each month in unemployment benefits ended in February. His 36-million-won (nearly $30,000) severance payout will run out in perhaps three months. This month Woo and family moved to a smaller apartment in a cheaper neighborhood. Yet he expresses surprising optimism for a man whose life has been turned upside-down.

In fact, there are upsides to this reversal of fortune. Tutoring his kids has brought Woo closer to them. "It's very satisfying, as Ihave a chance to talk to my children now," says Woo. "And our relationship has improved a lot. My family tries to brighten up my life." As for his prospects, Woo says his predicament has shown him that working for yourself has its own rewards. Enthuses the budding entrepreneur: "I plan to sell ice-cream when the weather gets warmer."


By Alexandra A. Seno

MIKE Julian had all the right qualifications to be one of the boys in the Philippines' clubby little world of stockbrokers. He had a double-degree in finance and economics from prestigious De La Salle University, an upper-middle-class pedigree, the social and business skills required to compete with other young overachievers. "Finance is a very snooty industry," he says. "There is a certain culture - you have to dress and talk a particular way - and you have to blend in." He did and did quite well - until April 1998, when he lost his cushy job in institutional equity sales with Paribas, one of Europe's biggest investment banks. Like so many other firms hit hard by the Crisis, Paribas downsized in Asia. Julian thought he would be unemployed one month. It has been 10.

Julian still remembers the afternoon he got the news. He had returned from lunch with friends and noticed colleagues were being called into the boardroom and, ominously, not returning to their seats. "Word was going around from a week before, but rumors are rumors and we hear a lot of those," he recalls. "I also thought: 'I just got a raise, they would not have done that if they were going to let me go.'" His turn came and he was told he was going to be retrenched. "You see all the statistics out there," he muses, "but it doesn't really hit you until you become one." About 30 employees at his company lost their jobs that day.

"At first I was angry," Julian recalls. "Why are they using me to cut costs? We each had a Bloomberg machine [for financial news]. They cost something like $1,000 each. Why didn't they take out the machines? We had several company cars. Why didn't they cut down on that?" Julian didn't say anything when he was being fired. He sat there and listened. Then he was asked to leave the building. After meeting for drinks with others who were let go, he went home exhausted and slept. The next day, he woke up at the crack of dawn. "I knew I didn't have to get up to go to work but my body clock was so used to it," he says. "I was up at my usual time watching the ticker tape on CNBC Asia. I was just watching." Suddenly he was an outsider to the world he loved.

Next Page>>

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


Yeltsin to hold summit with leaders of China, Central Asia

Taiwan domestic airliner jet catches fire, 28 injured

Jakarta loyalists warn of new Timor war

Missing American tourist found alive in Australian desert

Sonia Gandhi's son joins his mother's campaign

Tanks, missiles, roll through Beijing in display of might

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U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

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Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

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Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

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Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

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Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

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Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

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Back to the top   © 1999 Asiaweek Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
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