MANILA -- The number of unemployed Filipinos in January 2010 eased a bit to 2.8 million, slightly lower than the 2.9 million estimate in 2009, the government reported Tuesday.

The preliminary results of the National Statistics Office's (NSO) Labor Force Survey showed that the unemployment rate in January this year dipped to 7.3 percent from 7.7 percent posted in the same period last year.

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Thus, the employment rate now stands at 92.7 percent from 92.3 percent a year ago with some 1.7 million jobs created since January of 2009. This translates to about 36 million Filipinos now employed, said the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda).

“The Philippine labor market posted a strong performance amid the global economic crisis, the lingering impacts of the destructive tropical cyclones late last year, and the damage caused by the El Niño phenomenon in the second half of 2009,” Neda acting Director-General Augusto Santos said in a memorandum to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

He said “election-related activities possibly contributed to the positive employment generation of both sectors.”

But former Budget Secretary and University of the Philippines (UP) economics professor Benjamin Diokno said the figures are not encouraging at all.

He said the labor market continues to be “grim” despite the earlier claims of the government that the economy successfully bucked recession in 2009 due to fiscal reforms.

“The labor market continues to be grim. The 240,000 reduction in unemployment is more than offset by the 1.7 million increase in underemployment. New jobs were due to fiscal stimulus and government emergency programs. Both explain employment growth in public administration and public construction,” Diokno told Sun.Star in a text message.

The Arroyo administration launched last year the Comprehensive Livelihood Emergency Employment Program (Cleep), which seeks to create one million jobs like street sweepers or "pulis oyster" and hollow block-making, supposedly to cushion the impact of the global economic crisis in the country.

“But what happens if the effect of the fiscal stimulus fades? Also compared to Asean-5 countries, the Philippines has the second worst unemployment record, with Indonesia as having the highest unemployment rate at eight percent,” Diokno said.

The Asean-5 is a sub-regional grouping of the five biggest economies in Southeast Asia that include the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

The NSO survey found the National Capital Region as having the highest unemployment rate in January at 10.8 percent, followed by Calabarzon (9.5 percent) and Central Luzon (nine percent).

Cagayan Valley, which is now suffering from the effects of El Niño phenomenon, reported the lowest unemployment rate of three percent.

The same survey also showed more males (64.6 percent) having no jobs than females (35.4 percent). Half of the jobless persons belong to the 15-24 age bracket, while a third were 25 to 34 years old.

Of this number, one third of the unemployed were high school graduates, while college undergraduates and college graduates combined for 40 percent.

The underemployment rate -- those with jobs but want to work more -- increased to 19.7 percent in January against last year’s 18.2 percent.

Underemployed workers rose to 7.1 million from 6.2 million.

Of the total underemployed, 57 percent worked less than 40 hours a week, while those who worked beyond 40 hours accounted for 41 percent.

Also, the survey revealed that labor participation rate is at 64.5 percent or equivalent to 38.8 million of an estimated 60.2 million Filipinos, aged 15 and above. The rate, which is higher than last year’s 63.3 percent, tells that more people are out to look for work.

As to distribution of total employed, more than half worked in the service sector. Agricultural workers took almost a third of the total, while the rest went to the industry sector.

In the case of underemployed, the government said most of them were working in agriculture (46.7 percent) and services (39 percent). The underemployed in the industry sector accounted for 14.3 percent.

Last week, the National Competitiveness Council said the country should generate some 15 million "quality jobs" over the next five years if the Philippines wants to keep up with its more developed neighbors.

The study of Ateneo de Manila University economists said the jobs will secure, deliver a fair income, and provide personal development and social protection to families.

But for Santos, the government must now start addressing all the challenges that derail its path towards becoming a globally competitive economy with the country now on the right track to economic rebound complemented by a good labor market situation.

He said to sustain the good start of the domestic labor market, fast-tracking of rehabilitation and reconstruction of infrastructure must be pursued.

“This would immediately mitigate the impacts of El Niño, and avert water and electricity distribution problems, as these are clear threats to decent and quality employment and livelihood,” Santos said.

He also noted that the fiscal deficit must be managed through effective revenue collection and spending, and ensuring budgets for training, education and promotion of entrepreneurship.

“We must also improve confidence in governance, especially in light of recent reports placing the Philippines in a precarious position in the area of anti-corruption effort perceptions. Such governance means a consistent policy stance, improved government procedures and minimized regulatory capture that impact adversely on the industries’ ability to produce quality jobs,” Santos said. (Virgil Lopez/PNA/Sunnex)