Sunday, August 14, 2011

Jobless youth tell of their frustrations

The following first appeared in The National on January 29, 2011

A report released last week on employment trends by the UN's International Labour Organisation painted a stark picture of the Mena region. One would have to travel to a former Soviet republic to find unemployment rates anywhere nearly as high as are found in the Middle East and North Africa. Unemployment in the Mena region is the highest in the world, particularly among young people, and the work that is available is often poorly paid. Financial security? Non-existent.

About 40 per cent of the working population in the Middle East and 32 per cent in North Africa earn less than $2 a day, according to the ILO report. About a third work in conditions the ILO calls vulnerable employment, "characterised by inadequate earnings, low productivity and difficult conditions of work that undermine workers' fundamental rights".

In 2010, one out of every four young people in the region's labour market was unemployed. The scarcity of work seems to have discouraged many from even trying to enter the workforce. Only about 35 per cent of young people in the Muslim world have a job or are actively looking for one; in the rest of the world, that figure is closer to 50 per cent.

Queen Rania of Jordan warned in 2008 of the dire situation facing Arab youth. That year, 15 million Arabs under the age of 30 were unemployed, many of them university graduates. About 30 per cent to 40 per cent of young people in the region attend university, but that does not make it any easier to find a good job.

Mena is the fastest-growing region in the world and, according to the ILO, many economies in the region have not kept pace with the booming population. That means more competition for too few jobs.

Here, four young people from across the region and from various walks of life tell us what it is like to be looking for work. They are either seeking employment or working in jobs well below their education and qualifications.

Mohammad Anwar Abdallah, aka Matouk

Age: 25

City: Cairo

Level of education: Vocational diploma

I have been selling socks in Cairo streets for nearly five years. I graduated from vocational school in 2002 with a diploma in furniture carpentry, but I couldn't get work in carpentry, or even a steady job. All I found were odd jobs.

I worked for a while in a bakery, had a stint handling luggage at the customs in Sallum, near Libya, and was for a while working on a microbus, not as a driver but as tabbaa, the man who calls out to passengers and helps them to get in and out.

I would have loved to have a steady job with social security and all. I am engaged to my cousin but cannot marry her because I cannot save enough money. I make about 500 pounds [Dh315] a month selling socks and half of that goes for rent on my room in Bashtil [an informal housing area] in Imbaba.

There is no work in my village. It is a small mountain village and nothing much goes on there. This is why I come to Cairo to work. I don't own the merchandise I sell.

A supplier provides me with the socks and I write him an IOU note for the value of the merchandise, 700 pounds. I work illegally, so the municipal police can confiscate my merchandise at any time. If this happens, the supplier would give me another batch of merchandise, but I will have to pay for both, the one that was confiscated and the new one. So instead of paying him 100 pounds every day as I do now, I will have to pay him 150 pounds or so every day.

Some of my friends work in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and others have gone back to the village in Asyût and now work in agriculture.

I don't work in agriculture because my family plot is too small, about a quarter of an acre, just enough for my father to work on.

I dream of having a microbus of my own and working on it, either here or in my village in Asyût.

I sell socks from 11am until 11pm every day except Fridays. It's a tough life, but it's what God has ordained for me.

* As told to Nabil Shawkat

Khaled Kapoun

Age: 33

City: Dweila suburb of Damascus

Level of education: University graduate

I graduated in English literature from Damascus University two years ago. I have been looking for a permanent position as an English teacher ever since, but I have only found short-term contracts for three to four months at a time. I worked briefly for a university and then for a language institute.

I want to work in the private sector because the wages are better, but it is as hard to get jobs in both areas. No company wants to take people on for the long-term, while the public sector is very competitive and you have less control over where you work.

For the past month I have been unemployed. In the first days I worked on my CV and I walked around the city handing it to language institutions. Some days I start at 10am and don't get back until 10pm. They smile and say they'll call me, but they never do. I am surviving on my savings and I live with my parents.

I left school when I was 14 and worked various jobs, including as a blacksmith, before deciding to take up my studies again at the age of 24. But having a university degree has not given me more opportunities than I had before. Now that I have studied, I do not want to try to find work in another area. I want to use my skills and teach English.

The main problem in Syria is that employment is via networks. Even if there are teaching jobs, the institutions are more likely to interview and employ someone they know. I cannot afford to take a job away from Damascus because it would mean paying rent and the salaries are rarely high enough to do that. I am looking outside the country as well.

Being unemployed is having an effect on my life. I cannot save to buy a house and I could not afford to get married even though I am in my thirties. It is also bad for our society. If many people are unoccupied and poor, it encourages behaviour such as stealing.

Everyone knows it is very hard to find a job. But it is hard not to get frustrated. I feel as though I am in the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot, which I studied during my degree. I keep hoping that tomorrow a job will come along.

* As told to Sarah Birke

Fadi Quran

Age: 22

City: Al-Bireh neighbourhood of Ramallah

Level of education: University graduate (two bachelor's degrees)

I studied at Stanford in the USA and have a BA in international relations, focusing on international law, and a BSc in physics. I got back to the West Bank in July because I want to put my skills to good use here, in my country: I want to start an alternative-energy company. The issue here is not just the lack of jobs but the lack of opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to innovate, to start up something here that would also create opportunities for others.

I live in Ramallah, the most prosperous of the West Bank cities, but the Israeli occupation is a major obstacle as it puts a lot of bureaucracy in the way of a start-up; for example, in getting materials or recruiting skilled people, because of the difficulty in travelling both within the West Bank and from outside, for Palestinians. For instance, Gaza has many great engineers, but it is impossible for them to come and intern here for me.

Most of the jobs that are available for skilled people are within the Palestinian Authority or within the NGO sector, but that also creates a problem because they take all the skilled people out of the market and don't use them to innovate or develop skills that can expand the economy. Instead, skilled Palestinians end up working as low-level clerks.

Right now, I decided to look for jobs that are less entrepreneurial and have more to do with the NGO sector. I am frustrated by the circumstances that people here are suffering. I feel like if I moved somewhere else I would easily - thankfully - get a job. And I know that if I could work on my start-up, without these obstacles, I could help to create more jobs and be innovative. I have the potential to do that, but I can't use it and be of benefit. Sometimes I think that my energy would be better spent trying to remove the structural obstacles, by non-violently challenging the occupation. I feel that would be less difficult than what I am trying to do now. But I have to be optimistic for the future: I know something must happen to change things, and soon. The Arab world is boiling right now, and a part of that is because of this lack of opportunity for skilled young people.

* As told to Rachel Shabi

Ramzi Hajji

Age: 31

City: Tunis

Level of education: Master's degree

Geometry is for me like a kind of music: I just feel it. I can't explain why, but since I was a kid I've wanted to be a teacher.

I grew up in Regueb. It's a small town near Sidi Bouzid, in the interior of Tunisia. My father works as a labourer, mainly on construction sites, and my mother is a housewife.

We were eight children originally, but one brother and one sister died around 10 years ago from anaemia. My father always had to spend money as fast as he could earn it on our food, health care and on books and clothes for our schooling.

I used to help my father during school holidays, but my favourite thing was school. I dreamt of going to university and becoming a professor and, in 1999, enrolled in the University of Tunis. As a student I was living as I am now - hand-to-mouth - but I loved the experience.

We used to eat bsissa every day - it's a paste of grains, herbs and olive oil that students in Tunisia practically live on. Each morning it was two spoonfuls of bsissa, a coffee, two cigarettes, and then studying.

I graduated in 2005 with an MA in mathematics. I spent a couple of months at home in Regueb, then came back to Tunis to look for work.

I put up lots of adverts as a private teacher, but I didn't have much success: I was earning around 200 dinars month, and I was living on sandwiches.

I ended up working in cafes and hotels. Today I have the use of a schoolroom to give private lessons, but I'm still working without a contract. And now I'm taking home about 150 dinars a month.

Ideally I want a full-time job in a private school, but I don't have the connections. And I can't even find work in a state school.

When you're a student, you feel that your education equals a job later. You visit home and they're proud of you. But when you return home unemployed, it's different. They're not angry, but it's awkward. I hesitate to return home nowadays.

But I did visit Regueb this month to join the protests there - peaceful protests with reasonable demands for work and an end to corruption. I never imagined it would end with Ben Ali leaving. The revolution is wonderful. I feel I was reborn that day, January 14. And I hope things will keep improving.

* As told to John Thorne