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January 25, 2004
GENEVA -- The number of jobless people worldwide has reached a record of almost 186 million, while hundreds of millions more are employed but make so little money they can barely survive, the United Nations labor agency said Thursday.
The SARS outbreak in Asia and Canada, the war in Iraq and the continuing slump in global tourism due to terror fears combined last year to add an extra 500,000 to the worldwide unemployment totals, the International Labor Organization said.
The slight economic recovery in many regions late in 2003 had little effect on the number of jobless, the agency said in its annual Global Employment Trends report.
The number of people out of work in 2003 reached 185.9 million, or 6.2 percent of the total labor force. In 2002 the figure was 185.4 million, although this represented 6.3 percent because the world’s population was smaller. In 2001 the number was 160 million, or 5.9 percent.
The 2003 figure, based on government statistics, is the highest since the ILO began recording global unemployment in 1990, said Dorothea Schmidt, an employment analyst at the U.N. agency.
"But it’s very likely that this also is the highest we’ve seen for much longer," she told reporters.
Overall, the agency believes that the jobless percentage of the labor force has fluctuated between 5.8 and 6.4 percent in the past two decades, Schmidt added.
Although the United States saw some recovery from the economic slowdown of the past two years in the second half of 2003, job creation remained sluggish and unemployment rates held at around 6 percent.
"Employers have been slow to rehire," said ILO employment expert Jeff Johnson.
"But we remain cautiously optimistic that economic growth will translate into job creation. We don’t think it’s a question of if we’ll see employment growth in the United States, but when."
In Western Europe, unemployment remained at 7.9 percent. In Europe’s former communist countries the jobless level dipped to 9.2 percent, from 9.4 percent in 2002.
Most of the global increase was caused by a rise in unemployment in Asia. In the East Asian region -- which includes China -- the jobless total rose to 3.3 percent, up from 3.1 percent the previous year. The Middle East also was hard hit, rising from 11.9 to 12.2 percent.
Worst-affected worldwide, but particularly in developing countries, were young people.
"Youth unemployment tends to be 2 to 2 1/2 times greater than the national average," Johnson said. "In the developing world, job experience is often the only way to gain skills," he said, adding this was an age-old but persistent problem facing those who enter the labor force.
Lack of work for youngsters -- and fears of unemployment for those with jobs -- cause frustration and can lead to social instability, ILO said.
The number of "working poor" -- people, mainly in developing countries, who earn less than $1 a day -- held steady from 2002, ILO said. By the end of 2003, the figure remained 550 million.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where unemployment was 10.9 percent, 8 million jobs will need to be created in the next 12 years, said ILO. Otherwise the goal of halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015, set out by the U.N. member states at the Millennium Summit in 2000, could fail, the agency said.