Four years of war on Iraq’s job market

Kai Ryssdal Mar 19, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: In Iraq, today was like so many others.At least 26 people were killed in bomb attacks. An ABC-USA Today poll showed more than half the country’s population is resorting to simply staying home because of the ongoing violence. And that’s further paralyzing Iraq’s economy, as we heard earlier today from Tina Susman. She’s the Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

TINA SUSMAN: I was at a job fair just about three weeks ago in which a lot of companies — namely american companies here — were looking for employees. Everything from to engineers to translators to teachers. And the place was packed and i went up to people and asked them, “When was the last time you had a job?” And I was amazed at how many of them told me that they had had a job in the past year or so with a foreign company but they had quit because they had received death threats. When they found out that they couldn’t get a job that paid enough to feed their kids at an Iraqi company, they actually decided well, it’s worth the risk to come back and try to get a job with an American company again.

VIGELAND: Outside of the jobs that are available from foreign companies and contractors, what kind of jobs are available otherwise?

SUSMAN: Because of the violence that has just forced so many people to leave their neighborhoods and either go somewhere else in the country or leave the country altogether, you’re know they’re not really in a position to do the kind of serious job-hunting that we think about, you know People are just in such a transient state in this country right now. There’s just no meeting of the people who have the jobs and the people who need the jobs.

VIGELAND: What does that mean for life on a daily basis? It may seem like an obvious question, but when you don’t have the right jobs for people, and therefore you don’t have stores and restaurants and really anything going on there, what are people doing?

SUSMAN: Well, what are people doing, that’s a good question. They spend a lot of time inside. A lot of people are taking jobs they are far, far overqualified for just . . . just to make ends meet. Just to have enough to buy basics. You have a lot of highly skilled people — like engineers for instance — you know, who are working at clerical jobs because they really . . . they have no choice. A lot of the people I’ve met who do that, I say to them, “Well why do you do this?” And they say “Well I just had to get out of the house, I just can’t stand sitting at home watching TV anymore,” which is frankly something a lot of people do. A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to pull together money so that they can get themselves and their families out of the country. So they take piecemeal jobs. You know, there’s . . . there’s an awful lot of frustration, and a lot of people just stay in. They just stay in. I think the feeling among a lot of people is why put yourself at risk? Just stay inside where it’s safe.

VIGELAND: Tina Susman is Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

For some numbers on Iraq’s economic situation, we turn to Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution.Michael, what does the unemployment rate look like right now?

MICHAEL O’HANLON: It’s very hard to get a handle on this. And if you look at the Pentagon’s recent quarterly report, for example, they point out that estimates of unemployment are all over the map. And they don’t offer their own to try to clarify it. But I think we have to assume it’s in that 30 to 40 percent range overall. And the other thing I would say is we have no idea how it’s changing, but most of the main sources of employment in Iraq are not evolving very quickly. There is virtually no private investment from abroad, or even much from within. Therefore very few businesses starting up. The Bush Administration’s plan to revive some state-owned industry, as the president talked about a couple months ago, as far as I know really haven’t gone anywhere. The Iraqi security forces and other government sectors are more or less at the size they’ve been for two or three years. And so I’m afraid that whatever the number is, it probably is not changing very much on the unemployment front

VIGELAND: Let’s turn to some quality-of-life issues. Still in Iraq, it seems that the population there is left wanting for electricity, clean water. What’s the situation on the ground?

O’HANLON: That’s right. As best we can tell, the major utilities — and I would define those as electricity, water, sewage, kerosine, gasoline at service stations — these are all more or less flat. They are not getting appreciably better. And the main reason, of course, is the continued violence which renders large infrastructure especially vulnerable.

VIGELAND: Interesting to note, though, that more people have phone access — both land line and cell phone — and they have Internet access, but lacking electricity and water.

O’HANLON: Right. Well there’s a little bit of Internet use. It is much greater under Saddam, of course, since the Internet is something that despots tend to want to several restrict. However, telephones are extraordinarily common, and I believe we’ve recently reached the 10 million number, where Iraqis now have perhaps 10 times the number of phones they did under Saddam Huessin. There is simply no doubt that there is a greater degree of cell phone usage, and also, of course, a greater degree of media, much more independent media. If you’re looking for good numbers, these are about as good as you’re gonna get in Iraq today. But unfortunately, much of what people are saying on those cell phones today is complaining about how bad the rest of their lives have become.

VIGELAND: Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for your time today.

O’HANLON: Thank you.

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