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Arab youth aspiring to social justice and decent work

In 2011, youth unemployment rates in the Arab region have reached a worrying average of more than 27.3 per cent. For young women, the average unemployment rate is even worse...

Analysis | 15 May 2012
In 2011, youth unemployment rates in the Arab region have reached a worrying average of more than 27.3 per cent. For young women, the average unemployment rate is even worse – 41.1 per cent – besides the fact that their labour market participation is already much lower than anywhere else in the world. Even if young people have jobs, working conditions are often very poor, says Ms Dorothea Schmidt, ILO Employment Specialist in North Africa.

According to the ILO expert, wages in the Arab region are low, there is little social protection, working arrangements are poor and career prospects are limited. “So it is no wonder that many young people are angry,” Ms Schmidt concludes.

For young people in the region it happens too often that reality does not meet their aspirations. “The higher and lower education and income levels are equally affected by unemployment. What’s more, social security coverage, including unemployment and pension schemes, usually exist only for civil servants. If you are unemployed, you will slip into poverty very quickly,” Ms Schmidt says.

The feeling of frustration among youth is exacerbated by the fact that the parents have invested a lot of money in the education of their children hoping to ensure a better future for them.

If you are unemployed, you will slip into poverty very quickly."
Dorothea Schmidt, ILO Specialist
According to Ms Schmidt, the labour market problems in the region are very similar, although the countries differ in many respects. For example, in Tunisia, youth have received a much better education than in Egypt. Similarly, Tunisia has made more progress in combatting discrimination against women in the labour market than other countries in the region.

But the overall situation in Tunisia is still very problematic. “The revolution may have toppled the regime, but it hasn’t freed Tunisia from unemployment, especially among the young and educated. One out of three young people are unemployed here; at around 30 per cent, it’s a shockingly high rate for a country with such a well-educated workforce,” explains Ms Schmidt.

Job market cannot absorb youth

Tunisia adds 20,000 new entrants each year to a job market that cannot absorb them. Paradoxically, it’s easier to find work here if you don’t have a university degree since the majority of jobs are created in the informal economy and in low-skilled sectors like agriculture or trade. But these jobs pay low wages and working conditions can be dangerous.

The highly educated and highly skilled have equally high expectations when they graduate from university – they want a decent job. As Lassaad Labidi, Director of the Tunisian National Institute for Work and Social Studies puts it, “The big challenge is to find work after finishing school. Our students take the courses but always in the back of their minds there’s the niggling question: What opportunities will there be afterwards?”

Also in Egypt, most of the new jobs are created in the informal economy.

“Job creation is a top priority for the new governments in the two countries, but this will not happen overnight. However, in the medium term a lot could already be achieved, if training of young people focused more on the needs of employers and enterprises. In turn, employers should improve working conditions for and their attitude towards young people,” says Ms Schmidt.

Another important point made by the ILO expert is that labour market policies should ensure that supply and demand meet. In this regard public as well as private employment services have to become much stronger to fulfil their mandate of matching people looking for employment with available jobs.

Finally, “young entrepreneurs must be encouraged to set up their own businesses. Small and medium-sized enterprises create most of the jobs in today’s world,” she says, adding that support for the private sector, especially for the development of micro- and small enterprises that have high potential to create jobs for youth, is essential.

ILO programmes to promote youth employment are expanding in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. These programmes aim to improve the school-to-work transition, including through the formulation and implementation of comprehensive packages of active labour market policies that target disadvantaged youth. The ILO also supporting institutional reforms with a view of improving the governance of the labour market.

The ILO youth employment programmes in North Africa are currently being funded by Canada, Italy, Spain, the Unites States and the European Union. “Because of the magnitude of the youth employment challenge in the region, we are currently looking to expand our programmes by building broadbased partnerships,” concludes Gianni Rosas, Coordinator of the ILO Youth Employment Programme.

Projects with Australia, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Switzerland are about to be finalized. Their integrated approach will ensure that the employment challenge is tackled from all sides: the supply side through skills training, the demand side through creating jobs, and the matching process between jobseekers and employers. At the same time, projects will strengthen social dialogue and social protection, and promote international labour standards.