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Basra\'s Unemployment Woes

Saleem al-Wazzan
Young people in Basra are suffering the consequences of chronic unemployment with the sight of university graduates sitting on sidewalks offering their services as porters and construction workers increasingly common.
2.10.2009  |  Basra

Twenty-year-old Ali Atwan, an engineering graduate, is just one of the many graduates who congregate on the sidewalks of Ashshar in Basra in the hope of picking up casual work.

“The day that we don’t work we don’t find food to eat,” Atwan told Niqash. “Employment opportunities are almost non-existent and the municipality and the police chase us and claim that we distort the modern image of the city.”

Like many of his generation Atwan increasingly questions the promises made by politicians to cure unemployment. “Their promises were all lies and their strategic plans were all dreams,” he said, referring to the heady rhetoric of January’s provincial elections. “There’s no talk about international investment companies anymore.”

During a recent conference in Basra, Shiltagh Abboud, the city’s governor, dented the last hopes of the city’s youth, describing the city’s investment infrastructure as fully “destroyed” and acknowledging that it was very difficult to attract investors to the city.

During his election campaign Abboud had promised to transform Basra into the ‘Dubai of Iraq’.

Even so, a recent study by the investment and development committee of Basra provincial council states that employment levels have rise by a third since the “Knights Assault” in February 2008 which cracked down on militia rule in the city. The study noted that new employment in the ministries of interior and defence had created 8,000 new jobs.

But a source at Basra’s recruitment office, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Niqash that the number of unemployed people has once again risen in recent months. “The number of registered unemployed people in the province stood at 41,000 under the last provincial council. The registered number in September reached 65,000,” said the source.

According to officials, the majority of the unemployed do not have a university education. However, there are still many graduates like Atwan who cannot find work.

Salem Abdul-Karim, an economics expert at the ministry of industry, categorizes three types of unemployment in the province. He told Niqash that “there are the unemployed who graduated from colleges, institutes and professional and commercial schools. This accounts for 25 percent and it is rising. Then there are the unemployed who do not hold any scientific or technical knowledge and education. These are the highest in number because of the economic siege on Iraq. This number reaches as high as 60 percent. The third category is made up of those who spent their lives fighting as soldiers for the former regime’s wars without practicing any other profession. When these wars ended, these people found themselves without any employment opportunities because they have reached the age of 40, where it is difficult to find opportunities.”

Forty-year-old Thamer Hamza is a good example of this last category, even though he graduated in the 1990s from a technical college. While Hamza was able to find a low-paying temporary job with a government company, his contract was recently terminated. Meanwhile, other younger colleagues were given permanent positions.

Hamza and other unemployed Iraqis say that the government has let them down. Other than offering work in the security forces, no serious steps have been taken to combat the lack of jobs, they say.

Provincial officials, for their part, say that the province lack adequate funding and that its budget is suffering from a deficit of 97 billion Iraqi pounds.

Despite the increasing difficulties and the security and social implications, the provincial government recently stopped the distribution of financial aid to the unemployed. The aid had amounted to approximately US $100 for married couples and less for single people – barely enough say observers to cover daily living costs in even the poorest of areas.

Awatef Nawah, a member of Basra’s provincial council, told Niqash that the central government was to blame for this step. “The latest instruction issued by the ministry of labour and of social affairs led to a halt in the aid provided to the unemployed by the social care department, thus, the decision was not a local one,” he said.

But according to Abdul-Karim, the economist, the issue of employment should not solely be the responsibility of the government. He blames Iraqis “for becoming accustomed to relying on the state because of the country’s conditions. It is our responsibility to change this mentality.”

Abdul-Karim added that government statistics show that the “percentage of people employed in the government sector is more than 80 percent of the total work force and that most of them could be considered as disguised unemployment.”

As one example, the state-owned iron and steel complex in Basra now employs over six thousand people, despite the fact that the complex in not yet operational.

“A large number of employees do not work,” acknowledged Ali al-Naser, from the company’s information office. “This is considered another kind of unemployment which burdens the budget of the state.”

In response the government says it is looking to the private sector to jump start the local economy and provide new job opportunities.

“It is high time for the private sector to activate its role and to encourage individual initiatives,” said Abdul-Karim.

Critics, however, dismiss this thought saying that violence, corruption and a bloated bureaucracy impede private enterprise.