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Iraq: A Priority For New Government Will Be To Get People Back To Work

Iraqi officials say unemployment in the country is much lower than during the months after the war. However, even the most cautious estimates indicate that half of the Iraqi workforce is not officially employed. Future economic reforms in the country will create new jobs, but they also will leave some people now employed in state factories without work.

Baghdad, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi officials say the new state is ready to solve the labor problems inherited from the former regime.

Nouri Jafer is an undersecretary at Iraq's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Jafer says unemployment was nearly 60 percent during the last years of Saddam Hussein's regime. Six months ago, he said, that figure was as high as 70 percent. "Now we can say that unemployment does not exceed 50 percent," Jafer said.

Iraq's workforce numbers some 7 million. The disbanding of the army alone put some 400,000 men onto the street. More than 1 million Iraqis are salaried civil servants, nearly 100,000 are policemen, some 50,000 work on long-term reconstruction projects, and some 100,000 profit as day laborers. The rest of those presently employed are working in the private sector.

Jafer is optimistic and says Iraq's economy is recovering. "We have many hopes that the situation will radically improve with the development of the private sector and a free economy," he said. "Maybe we will be importing labor from the outside. We are optimistic about the future."

Shakir al-Zaidi is a Coalition Provisional Authority adviser to the Industry Ministry. He agreed that unemployment is much lower than it once was, but said one should be cautious with figures. He said Iraq, under Saddam's regime, "was a country that lived without statistics." "Every ministry, every bank, every economic group is starting from zero," al-Zaidi said. "They try just to put the thumb in the air and plug a figure and then as you go, you try to correct that figure according to the new findings and the new data you collect."

Al-Zaidi said it is difficult to say how many people are unemployed because many Iraqis are working in the country's "shadow economy" but are officially counted as unemployed.

The bustling life in the streets of Baghdad shows that many people have created their own jobs. The streets swarm with hawkers selling gasoline for several times the going rate at petrol stations. Many brands of cigarettes unknown in the West are being sold as Western products. In the so-called Thieves Bazaar, people sell items looted during the U.S.-led invasion last spring or stolen recently. Baghdad is also flooded with auto-repair garages.

Al-Zaidi said it is not only the shadow economy that blurs the problem of employment in the country. He said Iraq has inherited the problem of "pseudo-employment" from the former regime. Al-Zaidi said pseudo-employment is a phenomenon in which people were hired to work in state enterprises, received salaries, but never actually worked because many factories operated at one-third of their capacities.

According to al-Zaidi, these enterprises often have double the staff they need, "but nevertheless it helps to absorb any discontent coming from graduates because simply they were getting jobs. But whether they are doing anything or not, that's a different story."

Jafer said the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is fully aware of this and other labor problems. He said many people working both in Iraq's shadow economy, as well as the pseudo-employed, need to be retrained. He said the exact number of people who will have to learn new professions is unknown, but many former soldiers fall into this category.

Jafer said some former soldiers who have skills that could be applied in civil society have already been offered jobs in Iraq's public sector. "Concerning the Iraqi Army, we were able to absorb the technicians, like engineers, doctors. Everybody who has a profession was employed in the government offices. Those who deserved to retire are receiving retirement pensions," Jafer said.

However, he said the majority of former soldiers and other unemployed people do not have marketable skills. "We need time and funds to solve this problem," Jafer said.

Jafer said the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is ready to present to the Iraqi Governing Council drafts of laws ensuring unemployment payments, a minimum wage, and social benefits to workers.

Al-Zaidi from the Ministry of Industry agreed that laws regulating the labor market are crucial but said investment is even more essential in helping the country overcome unemployment. But he also noted that investment will work only if the unemployed change their attitudes. He said many unemployed people make little effort to improve their situations.

"It is a kind of peasant psychology, just to sit, do nothing and wait for the rain to come," according to al-Zaidi.