Whenever the economic situation takes a downward turn, it is usually foreign workers who are first in the firing line. Certainly this is the case in Asia, as the regional financial crisis begins to bite. In Thailand and Malaysia, the expulsion of millions of migrant labourers is now being organised. In South Korea, many companies have achieved the same result by refusing to pay their foreign workers. Even in Hong Kong, the economic downturn has brought an outcry against proposed changes to the labour importation scheme. The difference is that such objections are only against further workers being brought in. No one is calling for the expulsion of anyone already here nor for a halt to the importation of those who fill vacancies for which no one is available locally. That is what Malaysia risks doing by its decision to refuse to renew the work permits of 850,000 foreign construction and service workers. Most do manual jobs which Malays are unwilling to take on, prompting employers to claim some restaurants will close and construction projects will be impossible to complete after the workers' permits expire this summer. At least Kuala Lumpur recognises its obligation not to add to the problems of its neighbours by launching an immediate mass expulsions. Some affected migrants will be offered alternative, much lower paid jobs on plantations or in manufacturing, which are benefitting from an export-led boom due to the fall in the ringgit. Malaysian leaders have indicated they understood the sensitivity of deportations, since many of the workers are Indonesians whose expulsion will only worsen Jakarta's severe financial difficulties. By contrast, Thailand does not feel bound by such constraints, with Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai endorsing a plan to expel one million illegal foreign workers even before it was officially submitted to him at a meeting of ministers yesterday. That plan may not be easy to implement. Many of the migrants are ethnic Burmese, but not recognised by the Rangoon Government as their nationals, making it difficult to deport them further than the border camps now being set up. However, even during times of austerity, every country has an obligation to treat fairly those foreign workers whose help they relied on during the good times. It may be acceptable to gradually reduce their numbers by refusing to renew work permits, as Malaysia is doing. But it is unjust to resort to the mass expulsions Thailand is planning.