Karim Mejri, former counselor to Minister of Employment Saïd Aïdi, contributes to the national debate on employment in a nine part series on Nawaat.org. In this first installment, he examines the definition of unemployment and the latest statistics in Tunisia.

What exactly is an unemployed person? How many are there?

The National Statistics Institute (l’Institut National de la Statistique (INS)) uses the International Labour Office’s definition: a person is considered as unemployed when they fulfill three conditions:

1. The person has not worked during the base week.
2. The person is seeking work in the month preceding the interview.
3. The person is available to begin working in the 2 weeks following the base day.

A fourth condition is added to the first three: the person must make a good faith effort to look for a job (enroll at the unemployment office, sit for exams or go on interviews, etc.). This additional condition introduced by the ILO was adopted by the INS in 2009. According to the INS’s website, “This revision led to a lower number of job seekers and of the total number of the working population. Therefore, the unemployment level went from 14.7 % to 13.3% in 2009 using the new methodology.” [1]

The fact that this dip in the unemployment level is due solely to changing the computation used, should remind us to be wary of unemployment statistics, no matter how rigorous the method used to obtain them may be. In fact, how many people fulfill all of the foregoing conditions without really being unemployed. And conversely, how many people who are out of a job have now stopped looking, and given up hope? There are plenty of counter-examples: black market, seasonal work, students looking for work, etc..

Despite the limits that exist for all statistics, we should be wary of these numbers. For a long time we were fed official numbers, without any real significance. Therefore, we should ask ourselves how many people truly consider themselves unemployed in Tunisia. If we ask job-seekers, they consider that an unemployed person is someone who lacks a stable job in the public sector (the private sector is often viewed as lacking real stability). It is sometimes more useful to estimate the perception of joblessness among those experiencing it instead of sticking to formal definitions and raw numbers. In the same vein, it should be noted that family solidarity can cushion the effects of unemployment in Tunisia, as is also the case in certain other countries, where jobless young people can remain in their family homes while unemployed (as in Spain).

The unemployment rate in Tunisia is calculated, as in all countries, by considering the number of individuals seeking employment relative to the economically active population, but a useful statistic in order to understand the extent of the problem in our country would be one based on households, or even the average number of job-seekers per family. This kind of indicator would be very useful in order to understand the real impact of the issue, especially on the local and regional level.

The Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment, via the Employment and Self-Employment Offices (BETI), only deals with job seekers. Yet, a job-seeker can be either an unemployed person or someone who has a job but is looking to change fields or seeking higher pay.
Registration with the BETI can be considered a necessary condition, for the State, to be considered as unemployed, but it is never sufficient.

During the application of th the government decree 2011-32 dealing with recruitment in the public sector for 2011, the stated obligation for job-seekers to prove that they are unemployed created many problems. Having a BETI registration was necessary but not sufficient. The selection commissions were obliged to verify the employment status of job-seekers with the national social security office, which resulted in additional delays, errors and approximations, and misunderstandings with job seekers, who each have their own definitions of unemployment…Finding solutions for this problem will require agreement on terms by all concerned, as well as identifying the most pertinent indicators to provide a better picture of the situation in our country.

Returning to the official numbers, the ministry estimated unemployment in mid-2011 at 700,000 individuals. This estimation was based on extrapolations and assumptions about the economic situation. In September of the same year, the INS confirmed this number when it published the results of field surveys conducted in May 2011. Such a number of unemployed individuals brings the unemployment level to 18.3% of the active population [4].

The evolution of these unemployment numbers over the course of 2011, a quintessential economic crisis year, is an indication of the fragility of jobs on the one hand, and of the inability of the economy to create sufficient jobs on the other. In the first trimester of 2012, some government officials, as well as some associations, estimated that the number of unemployed had reached 800,000, or even a million by some calculations. This has not yet been confirmed by the INS.

This statistic of 18.3% unemployment obscures multiple different realities. In fact, the national average unemployment level for women reached 27.4%. And the national level for those with tertiary qualifications reached 29.2%. The report published by the INS for the 2011 survey did not break out detailed profiles by region, but it has become common knowledge that the unemployment level among those with tertiary qualifications in the Gafsa region was 47% in 2010. An analysis by specialty and by institution, undertaken by the Ministry of Employment in 2011, ought to provide more detailed information on the structure of unemployment and identify the courses of study which lack employment opportunities, in order to avoid such bloodletting in the future.

Next article: The public sector, object of desire

[1] www.ins.nat.tn, demographic and social data, employment and unemployment indicators section

[2] The active population is composed of people of active age (15 and older) who are either working or unemployed during the base week

[3] To be recruited in the public sector for 2011, exceptional measures were promulgated in the government decree 2011-32 which required recruits to be unemployed, in order to focus recruitment exclusively among the unemployed.

[4] http://www.ins.nat.tn/communiques/Presentation_Enq_Emploi_2011_VF09.pdf