By Emil Danielyan
At least one in three working-age Armenians was unemployed as of February 2005 despite several consecutive years of double-digit economic growth, according to extensive research commissioned by the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Its findings, made public on Thursday, are based on a nationwide survey of some 1,500 randomly selected households that was conducted by a Yerevan-based non-governmental organization in February-March last year. One third of their adult members told pollsters from the Progressive Social Technologies (PST) group that they are out of work.
The information sharply contrasts with Armenia’s official unemployment rate of about 10 percent. But it is much closer to the estimates of independent economists and analysts who have long pointed out that only a fraction of jobless citizens register with employment centers of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.
A separate household survey conducted by the National Statistics Service in 2003 similarly found that the real unemployed rate stands at a staggering 33 percent. PST researchers believe that the grave problem has not been significantly alleviated since then.
Official statistics show the Armenian economy expanding by almost 14 percent last year, its fifth double-digit rate of growth registered in as many years. The government says the robust growth further reduced poverty and boosted household incomes. President Robert Kocharian personally reported in late December a 18 percent fall in unemployment. But he did not say how many new jobs were created in the course of 2005.
The OSCE-sponsored survey shows that unemployment is particularly widespread among Armenians below the age of 35. It suggests that contrary to a widely held belief, the rate of joblessness in Yerevan is only slightly lower than that in the rest of the country.
The polling data also shows, somewhat surprisingly, that Armenians holding university degrees are more likely to find jobs. “The higher the level of education, the lower the rate of unemployment,” contend the pollsters.
Unemployment has been the main cause of a massive labor emigration suffered by Armenia since independence. Hundreds of thousands of its residents have gone abroad, mainly to Russia, in search of work over the past 14 years. The household survey gives weight to government claims that the process has eased considerably in recent years due to improved economic conditions.
Almost 14 percent of the families polled said at least one of their members worked abroad from 2002 through 2004, leading PST and OSCE experts to estimate that between 116,000 and 147,000 people left Armenia for economic reasons during that period. Two thirds of them returned home by February 2005, the survey said. The National Statistics Service estimates that the rate of labor out-migration was twice as higher in 2001 and 2002.
The survey found that a typical Armenian migrant worker is a married man aged between 41 and 50 years who “began looking for work abroad at the age of 32-33.” Interestingly, about half of the 2002-2004 migrants decided to go abroad in despite having jobs in Armenia.
According to the Central Bank of Armenia, cash remittances from Armenians working abroad reached a record-high level of $1 billion last year, which is worth more than one fifth of the country’s 2005 Gross Domestic Product. The bank says their rapid growth in recent years has been a key reason for the dramatic appreciation of the national currency, the dram, against the U.S. dollar and the European Union euro.
The OSCE/PST research suggests, however, that the remittances are not as vital for Armenian family budgets as is widely assumed, saying that only 15 percent of the households regularly receive cash from their members living in Russia and elsewhere in the world.