Polish unemployment returns to record level

Agence France Presse, 22 January 2003, 3:03pm

Unemployment in Poland, the European Union's biggest to-be-member, returned to record levels in December after the country's new superminister for jobs and the economy warned things would get worse before they get better.

Figures released by the national statistics agency GUS showed 18.1 percent of the workforce, or 3.2 million people, were out of work in December, 101,900 more people than in December when 17.8 percent were out of work and 3.3 percent more than the same month last year.

Unemployment first hit the record level last March before falling back, and the return had been widely expected.

Earlier this week Jerzy Hausner, who heads Poland's newly created superministry for economy and jobs had warned worse was yet to come, but that things would improve slowly but surely.

“Unemployment will grow again in January and perhaps in February, only to start to drop from March. At the end of the year the rate should be between 16 percent and 17 percent,” he said.

Hausner has put job creation as one of four priorities of his ministry, along with the fight against poverty and social exclusion, relaunching economic growth and use of the European Union funds which he will have to manage.

Unemployment has particularly hit the impoverished east of the former communist country, with job losses in former state-owned farms, and there have been job losses due to restructuring of staple industries like mining, steel and shipbuilding.

Poland, like other former ex-communist countries, has carried out painful economic reforms in order to forge a market economy in preparation for joining the European Union on May 1, 2004.

In an interview with Poland's biggest daily newpaper Gazeta Wyborcza this week, Hausner warned of a popular backlash, just 14 years after the fall of communism, unless he stopped the spiral of poverty.

“Poverty and social exclusion lead to an increase in those who are against the market economy. Such people often turn to populist parties, who, thus strengthened, block economic change,” he said.

“And that's not all. Poverty also brings a reduction of demand on the domestic market. Currently 10 percent of Poles live below the poverty line. Whole communities no longer take part in the market: they subsist through exchanging products and services and become totally self-sufficient,” he said.

He stressed that he favoured professional reintegration, including incentives to potential employers to hire, rather than increasing social aid.

“In fact, we have to continue to promote all kinds of professional reintegration, but first and foremost we have to make sure that employers want to hire,” he said.

He also favoured promoting small shops and businesses, to prevent what he called “supermarketisation” in the farm intensive country of 38 million people.

“I am not against supermarkets,” he said…”However, imagine a town in which there would only be supermarkets.

“Could we accept a situation in which a smaller and smaller group of salaried workers had to support an ever-growing majority of the unemployed?” he said.