UPDATE 1-Argentina has saved jobs despite crisis - minister
* Labor minister touts subsidies to thousands of workers
* Stands by official jobless data questioned by others (Adds details and background)
By Fiona Ortiz
BUENOS AIRES, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Argentina has saved thousands of jobs through salary subsidies at factories that agreed to no layoffs despite the economic crisis, said Labor Minister Carlos Tomada, disputing charges that unemployment data is too rosy.
He said the government has managed to shave one percentage point off the official unemployment rate -- now at nearly 9 percent -- through such subsidies.
Some 150,000 workers are getting a 600 peso ($158) subsidy a month -- about half of the minimum wage -- at companies that agree not to lay off workers, up from 5,000 workers a year ago, before the global financial crisis hit, the minister said.
The idea is that direct payments to workers allow companies to reduce shifts or hours instead of laying people off.
"Each time a company ... wants to lay off workers, we immediately get both sides together and start talks. We try to cut off that impulsive reaction by Argentine business leaders to fire people as their first measure," Tomada told foreign correspondents on Tuesday.
Argentina's official economic data has been widely questioned for two years since a political shake-up at the National Statistics Institute, known as INDEC.
But Tomada said the INDEC's unemployment rate -- 8.8 percent in the second quarter -- was very close to what his ministry estimates.
After October 2008 "there started to be a decrease in the creation of new jobs, accompanied by a new increase in unemployment, which is visible, which must be around 8.6 percent or 8.7 percent," he said.
FOCUS AWAY FROM JOBLESS BENEFITS
Tomada said the government decided at the start of the global financial crisis last year to focus on maintaining jobs rather than giving unemployment benefits, so that workers remain trained and accustomed to working.
Mistrustful of official unemployment data, experts are looking at other numbers from INDEC and private surveys.
Ernesto Kritz, a labor expert and director of SEL Consultores consulting firm, said in a September report that job loss in the manufacturing has moderated recently.
"But even so, the accumulated loss of jobs since the fourth quarter last year is higher than 5 percent in industry and 11 percent in construction," Kritz wrote.
Kritz said the loss of jobs in the service sector has been less severe.
Tomada said policies have also significantly reduced under-the-table unemployment. He said it was higher than 50 percent after the 2001-2002 economic crisis, then came down to 36 percent, and is now at 38 percent.
He also said the government aims to keep improving salaries. Large private and public-sector unions have negotiated pay hikes well above the official inflation rate in the last two years, and he said 2010 would be similar. (Reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Xavier Briand)
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