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Solutions Sought for Unemployment

In the midst of consumers and students jamming Avenida Central in San José on Tuesday, about 20 people stood in a line in front of a vacant storefront with résumés in hand, waiting to talk to an employment agency representative seated at a small wooden desk. Each person spoke to the man for a few minutes and as they left, he added their résumés to the four-inch stack accumulated on the corner of the desk.

The line was comprised of unemployed persons, young and old, Costa Ricans and foreigners, all hoping the man at the desk could provide a job, a lead, or pass their résumés on to someone with a possible interest in hiring them.

While standing in the line, Ana Chacón said she has been out of work for almost four months. Chacón, who worked at a factory for over two years before being laid off, attributed her struggles to the economic crisis.

When the crisis arrived, the company let go of most of the older employees in the factory, Chacón said. I have about 10 friends in the same situation as me. We look for jobs almost every day from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., but all we ve been able to find is weekend work in small stores.

Chacón said she has applied at several kitchens and stores, though she rarely receives a response. Chacón also said her older age puts her at a disadvantage.

Coincidentally, 19-year-old Steven Porras also referenced age and the crisis as his biggest hurdles in obtaining employment.

People my age have two central problems getting jobs, Porras said. There aren t that many jobs because of the crisis, and, of the jobs that are available, nobody wants to hire people who don t have experience.

Porras, who has never been employed, said he has applied for many jobs and has had several interviews, though he has never heard back from any of the prospective employers.

Although age and level of experience are factors that affect the decisions of employers, the common theme of the hopefuls in line matches the phrase uttered throughout the country to explain increased unemployment: crisis.

All Hands on Deck

Since President Oscar Arias announced the Shield Plan, Plan Escudo, on January 28 of this year, economists and businesses throughout Costa Rica have urged a general discussion on the state of employment. The Shield Plan, which has been highly criticized for its perceived deficiencies regarding employment, suggests methods to safeguard against job losses, though it fails to include ideas on how to create more jobs.

As calls for reformed policies concerning employment persisted, the Arias administration arranged a meeting on Tuesday, July 14, to allow for an open discussion on the state of employment among the country s many sectors.

On the day of the meeting, 150 representatives from labor organizations, trade unions, the tourism sector, the economic and academic sectors, the finance sector, businesses, ministries and the Catholic Church met to discuss and analyze the impact of the international economic crisis on employment.

The meeting was designed to generate ideas on how to boost employment and slow the increase in job losses.

Findings and Suggestions

The meeting opened with two central announcements. The first was the release of unemployment figures by the Social Security System of Costa Rica (CCSS). According to Eduardo Doryan, the executive president of CCSS, 33,000 employees affiliated with the Social Security System lost their jobs between August 2008 and May 2009.

The accuracy of these numbers has been disputed, as the CCSS accounts only for employees registered to receive Social Security benefits, and does not account for self-employed or non-registered workers. Many believe the numbers are significantly understated.

Many employees don t report their job status to Social Security, said Édgar Morales, the secretary deputy general of the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP). I would predict that, in the last six to eight months, there have been more like 40,000 unemployed.

To derive a positive from the large number of unemployed, the CCSS reported that in May and June of this year only about 1,200 employees lost their jobs, meaning that, though unemployment continues to grow, the pace has slowed in recent months.

The second significant announcement was delivered by José Manuel Salazar, director of employment for the International Labor Organization (ILO). Salazar, a former minister of foreign trade in Costa Rica, told the crowd that the recession will be slow and prolonged.

He cited as indicators of this the 4.9 percent decrease in the gross domestic product during the first quarter of the year and the meager 0.17 pecent increase in the inflation rate.

Salazar then followed his grim proclamation with a proposed solution.

Investment in infrastructure will create employment opportunities and improve employee salaries, Salazar said. This type of program has been very popular in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Generally, it focuses on very poor workers who are not qualified and unemployed and gives them the opportunity to work.

The government has the money to invest in infrastructure, said José Salas, labor and economic consultant for the Chamber of Industries. If they put money into building schools, roads and tour locations, it would provide opportunities for many, many construction jobs.

Will the Government Respond?

At the conclusion of the meeting, the consensus among the representatives was that investing in infrastructure projects road construction, bridges, schools and sidewalks is the best solution to increase the work force and improve areas of the country that demand attention, while laying a basis for future growth.

Mayi Antillón, communications minister for Arias, said some infrastructure projects, such as the San Carlos highway and developments in the port of Limón and the NicoyaPeninsula, are already underway. Antillón said the government is looking to create more infrastructure projects in the immediate future.

However, government critics claim that no comprehensive action plan for creating jobs through infrastructure projects exists.

The positive part (of the meeting) was that unemployment is showing signs of slowing down and we have the funds to invest in infrastructure, Salas said. The negative part is that there is no plan of action. The president said, Let s have dialogue. We did. But at the end of it all, nothing has any momentum towards change. It was the black point of the day.

Others were not as diplomatic in their responses as was Salas.

It seems like President Arias is on another planet, Morales said. He nods his head and says everything is fine. All the rest of the country is begging for action and he seems to be lost thinking about another country.

Options for the Unemployed

Several times the line of unemployed on Avenida Central dropped to about 15 people on Tuesday afternoon, though as soon as the number diminished, other job hopefuls joined the end of the line. But when months of fruitless searching accumulate, the unemployed no longer know where to turn.

I have been out of work for five months, said Liz Beth Alberado, who previously worked at the Inter-American University (UIA). I have a child less than a year old and need to feed my family. I ve applied to jobs almost every day. I don t know if I ll ever be hired again. Morales expressed a lofty idea for the unemployed.

The unemployed need to organize, Morales said. If they organize and create a social organization, they can present themselves to the government and demand jobs.

There are many options for jobs, and good jobs, if the government chooses to create them.

In the meantime, the unemployment line continues to refresh itself.



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