Tackling Another Major Challenge in Iraq: Unemployment

By Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 20, 2005

BAGHDAD -- On the top floor of an otherwise vacant building in a slum where flocks of sheep graze trash-strewn streets, 25 unemployed women wearing head scarves were learning to operate Chinese-made sewing machines.

Down the hall, an instructor was teaching jobless men basic word processing on computers fresh from shrink-wrapped packaging. And in another cramped room, teenage and adult students were chatting before their class in basic literacy.

The new job-training center in Baghdad's impoverished borough of Sadr City, run by the Iraqi government, is on the front lines of efforts to address one of the most pressing challenges to the country's stalled economy: unemployment.

Numbering in the millions, Iraq's unemployed have found little refuge in an economy derailed by two years of relentless insurgent attacks. Many have not had steady jobs since the United States dissolved the Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion. And U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge that every young man without work is a potential recruit for insurgents who pay as little as $50 to people who plant explosives on a highway or shoot a policeman.

"The longer this goes on, we are asking for trouble because we are breeding more and more insurgents," said Muhammed Uthman, an Iraqi businessman and former oil ministry official who serves on a panel that advises the government on reconstruction. "Unemployment is exactly what the terrorists want."

A report published last month by the government and the United Nations put the unemployment rate at 27 percent. But many experts here say the actual number is probably closer to 50 percent or more because the survey was not conducted in some of the least stable parts of the country and because many Iraqis work unreliable part-time jobs.

The Labor Ministry has registered 656,437 unemployed people across Iraq's 18 provinces -- including more than 110,000 in Baghdad alone -- but even ministry officials acknowledge that the actual number is probably several times as large. In an April poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded nonprofit organization, Iraqis ranked unemployment the country's second most pressing problem, behind security.

And the situation will likely get worse before it gets better, the government says. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari recently announced plans to scale back Iraq's bloated public sector, which employs as many as half of Iraq's 6.5 million workers.

In Saddam Hussein's tightly controlled economy, salaries for government workers were often paltry, but the government provided work for almost anyone who needed it. Since the invasion, salaries for many public sector workers have risen, but the new government has said it is no longer practical to employ so many people.

Meanwhile, more than 150,000 Iraqis were employed on a permanent or temporary basis on U.S.-funded reconstruction projects as of June 1, according to State Department figures.

"It's things like trash cleanup, surface removal, road rehabilitation -- the kinds of jobs that maximize employment," said a U.S. reconstruction official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If you have a choice between a backhoe and 20 guys with shovels, you use the 20 guys even if it takes longer."

In the past two months, the Iraqi government and the U.S. Agency for International Development have launched new efforts to combat unemployment through a network of training and recruitment centers in such cities as Basra, Mosul and Baghdad.

But everyone involved seems aware that the centers are only one part of fixing a giant problem in a country where many service industries simply do not exist. At a training center in Iraq's Labor Ministry, Suraa Yahya was teaching English recently to a half-dozen young men. She asked the students to read from a list of services printed in their textbooks and decide whether they were available in Iraq.

First came getting medical advice over the telephone. "Not unless if your friend is a doctor," a student said, after a long pause. Grocery shopping by telephone? No. Professional dog walkers? No. Clothes for sale in vending machines?

"No, but that is not a good idea," a man said. "The people who are selling clothes would lose their jobs."

In a nearby Labor Ministry recruitment center, dozens of applicants lined up with résumés in hand, awaiting interviews for management jobs. Most graduated from college at least a year ago and have been unemployed since.

Ali Jima Abid submitted his application to the center last August, but was only recently called for an interview. Before the invasion, he worked in Iraq's Transportation Ministry, but he lost his job soon after Baghdad fell. To make ends meet, he said, he has been selling snacks and cigarettes from a roadside stand.

"Like everyone, I am feeling desperate and don't think I will ever find a job," said Abid, 30, who was spending his second consecutive day waiting on a bench in the ministry's lobby because a blackout had caused the previous day's interviews to be canceled.

"At this point I will accept anything, even if it is not what I am qualified to do," he said.

The manager of the ministry's recruitment center, Riyadh Hassam, said a major part of the problem was the country's inability to attract private investment because of the security situation. With few if any international financial institutions operating in the country, the type of financing needed for large development projects that spur growth and provide jobs is lacking, he said.

"Sometimes when I think about the size of the problem, I think it will take five years to fix," he said. "Sometimes I think it will take more. Sometimes I think it will take forever."

Unaccustomed to competing for business after years of embargoes that limited imports, Iraq's private sector is struggling to appeal to consumers who have access to more foreign goods. "There's a flood of new products coming in that are preferred by people here," said the U.S. reconstruction official. "So Iraqi goods that did just fine before are not able to compete."

Some job seekers say they have already given up. Down on his luck and with a family of 12 to support, Ahmed Habib paid a visit to the only people in Baghdad who seemed to be hiring: Iraq's police and army.

But the man who took his application asked for a $200 bribe, Habib said. Unable to afford the payoff, he was turned away and now spends most days waiting on the side of a road with other jobless laborers, hoping someone might offer $10 for a morning's work.

"If there is no work, I stay until sunset and go back home," said Habib, 30. "I go back and tell [my family] they should sleep because there is no dinner."

Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company