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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Unemployment 'timebomb' ticking

Unemployment 'timebomb' ticking

Minister of Finance Keat Chhun and opposition leader Sam Rainsy have both called

unemployment a "timebomb," and Rainsy has blasted the government for burying

the truth about joblessness.

In his harshest criticism of the government since returning from exile in February,

Rainsy emphatically condemned a recently released Ministry of Planning assessment

of a 4 percent national unemployment rate, calling it "impossible and unrealistic."

"Unemployment is a timebomb - I believe it is as high as fifty percent,"

Rainsy said by phone from Paris on May 17. "It is a national issue from all

perspectives - economic, social and political. And it is the big failure of the government.

"The Cambodian government is hiding the facts and it will burst in their face

in the coming years. This is a really big issue that the government does not want

to address. They are using every trick to hide and manipulate statistics. This is

a disaster."

Rainsy says the draft law on mandatory conscription now before the National Assembly

is an inappropriate reaction to an unemployment crisis about which the government

is well aware.

"[The conscription proposal] is definitely because of this. Young unemployed

people will take to the street and demonstrate their frustration and poor living

conditions," Rainsy said.

"They plan to enroll them in the army so they can pretend to provide jobs. They

intend to control them and keep them from taking to the streets. They want to hide

unemployment through conscription."

Speaking before a group of foreign investors at the Cambodia Investment Trade and

Infrastructure Conference in November 2005, Minister of Finance Keat Chhun used the

term "timebomb" in reference to Cambodia's unemployment problem several

times. Chhun did not respond to written and telephoned interview requests on the

subject.

Heng Chuon Naron, secretary-general of the Ministry of Finance, confirmed on May

18 that government surveys have reckoned 4 percent of the Cambodian population is

unemployed.

According to 2005 figures compiled by the International Center on Labor Statistics,

this would make Cambodia's jobless rate better than the US (5.1), Japan (4.4), Britain

(4.7) and less than half that of France (9.5). Of all the countries in the Organization

for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) only the Netherlands and South Korea

have unemployment below 4 percent.

According to Naron, booms in the garment, tourism and agriculture sectors are absorbing

the number of young Cambodians who enter the labor force annually.

"The unemployment stands still at 4 percent from year to year, because the number

of people also increases," Naron said.

A 2005 report by local NGO Youth Star Cambodia puts new entrants to the job market

at roughly 200,000 each year. The report also states "it is estimated that only

one in nine university graduates is able to find a job upon completion of their studies."

"Each year, our job market does not have enough places for those students who

just graduated," said Roth Sokha, director of the higher education department

at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.

Government and National Election Committee (NEC) figures show that 52 percent of

Cambodia's 13.4 million people are under the age of 18.

A spokesman for the Economic Institute of Cambodia estimated that economic growth

- estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be 13.1 percent in 2005 - is generating

roughly 20,000 to 30,000 new jobs each year.

Rainsy has called the government's unemployment figure of 4 percent farcical and

is calling for a complete overhaul of unemployment assessments and definitions.

"I challenge Minister of Planning Chhay Than and even Hun Sen for endorsing

such a totally unrealistic figure," said Rainsy, who served as Minister of Finance

from 1992 to 1993.

"I have been studying this issue for several years. Two or three years ago Hun

Sen said unemployment was at .5 percent and now they say it's 4 percent. This is

impossible. It's time to face the facts. In terms of unemployment we are as bad as

some African countries. I challenge the donor community, the ADB, the World Bank

to look at this issue and focus on job creation."

Throughout the interview Rainsy maintained his belief that unemployment was as high

as 50 percent, but conceded that he has a broad definition and counts beggars, scavengers

and sex workers among the unemployed. He claimed that the government's figure was

reached by using the International Labor Organization (ILO) method of social surveys.

The ILO, which listed Cambodia's unemployment rate at 0.8 percent in 2004, defines

unemployed "as those people who are without work and looked for worked the week

before the survey." If a person worked for just one hour the week before the

survey they are considered employed. "Discouraged workers" - people who

have given up looking for work - are also not counted among the unemployed.

The Ministry of Finance's Naron confirmed that unemployment figures were based on

"surveys."

"It would be a huge social problem - not only an economic disaster but a social

disaster - if unemployment is not addressed properly," Rainsy said.

"I think the government is hiding it because it would embarrass the government

and donor community. The government should be ashamed for not addressing this issue

and trying to cover it up and hide."

(Additional reporting by Heidi Hagenlacher)

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