By Shakeh Avoyan
The government reported on Thursday a further drop in unemployment, Armenia’s most acute socioeconomic problem, attributing it to continuing economic growth.
The latest data released by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs show the official unemployment rate falling from 9.7 to 9.3 percent since January 2004, a figure which is well below unofficial estimates.
Experts from the United Nations’ World Food Program believe that the of the real scale of joblessness in the country hovers between 20 and 30 percent. The estimates were essentially born out by a survey of the labor market in Yerevan which was conducted last year by the Armenian-European Policy and Legal Advice Center (AEPLAC) funded by the European Union. Almost 30 percent of 1,000 people randomly interviewed in the capital said they can not find a job.
The official percentage takes account of only some 108,000 unemployed people that are now registered with the Labor Ministry’s Employment Service which has offices across Armenia. Most of the unemployed do not bother to apply for registration due to meager state benefits and slim chances of finding a job through the agency.
The chief of the Employment Service, Sona Harutiunian, admitted that the real jobless rate is higher than the one shown by official statistics but said it is not as high as the UN experts believe. “If we account for all employed individuals, the rate will not exceed 15 percent,” she told reporters.
Harutiunian pointed to widespread hidden employment, a common form of tax evasion by businesses. According to Labor Minister Aghvan Vartanian, at least 130,000 Armenians have jobs that are not registered with the tax authorities.
President Robert Kocharian expressed dismay at the magnitude of the problem during a meeting with officials from the State Taxation Service earlier this month. He demanded that they crack down on the practice.
In a newspaper interview published on Thursday, the head of the Taxation Service, Felix Tsolakian, said his employees are actively inspecting businesses and have already identified more than 10,000 “hidden jobs.”
There are no government data on the number of jobs created in Armenia last year. Harutiunian said only that her agency found jobs for about 8,000 people.