IRAQ: Unemployment bad and getting worse
As Iraq's security situation improves, its employment situation is lagging behind, according to a report compiled by the United Nations and other, non-governmental agencies. The just-released findings indicate that unemployment in Iraq is 18%, with an additional 10% of the labor force working part time but wanting to work more.
One of the most troubling pieces of the report concerns the percentage of young men out of work: 28% of those ages 15 to 29 are unemployed.
U.S. and Iraqi military and political officials have long warned that these are the people most vulnerable to recruitment by insurgent groups if they are left without income for too long.
Women also are disproportionately out of work. Only 17% have jobs, a low number compared to neighboring countries. In Iran, 42% of women are in the labor force; in Jordan, 29%; in Kuwait, 52%.
"Without a concerted effort to boost the private sector, most of the 450,000 new entrants into Iraq's labor force in 2009 will not find secure jobs," says the report, which warns of challenges to the country's economic and social recovery and its long-term stability.
Unemployment and under-employment have plagued Iraq since the U.S. invasion of March 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship but also led to sectarian warfare and chaos that closed most businesses and uprooted millions of Iraqis. Reviving the economy was one of the goals of the so-called "surge," which sent tens of thousands of extra U.S. forces into Iraq to quell violence in 2007. The idea was that a more peaceful environment would encourage economic revival.
But many Iraqis say they can't get jobs with the Shiite-led government -- the country's biggest employer -- unless they are Shiites, friends with the right people, relatives of powerful government figures or aligned with the right political party. And most people are shunning the private sector because its wages and benefits are low by comparison, and because the Iraqi government's burgeoning bureacracy offers more opportunities, says Raad Omar, the head of the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Baghdad.
"We've lost people who've actually applied for jobs with the government. Even though they're stupid jobs and they want to do something creative, they feel it's better pay and they want a pension," said Omar. "The private sector is not that attractive to many Iraqis. It's fragmented, and the private companies by and large don't really take care of their human resources. The private sector is the only way to absorb the unemployed, but it has a lousy reputation."
According to the new report, the drop in oil prices -- oil accounts for 90% of Iraq's revenue -- makes sustaining the high public-sector workforce impossible. More than one-third of planned government expenditures for 2009 will go toward salaries, it said, noting that public-sector employment has doubled since 2005 and now accounts for nearly 60% of the full-time jobs in Iraq.
-- Tina Susman in Baghdad
Photo: An Iraqi woman begs for handouts from drivers on a busy Baghdad street. Credit: Saad Khalaf
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