Greek jobless hits record, may edge higher still

ATHENS Thu Jul 12, 2012 8:52am EDT

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek unemployment hit a record 22.5 percent in April and may keep edging higher, with even the key tourism sector unlikely to provide more than fleeting support over the summer as visitors stay away from the recession-hit country.

Near-bankrupt Greece is dependent on aid from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, who have demanded spending cuts that have helped push its economy into a fifth year of recession and forced thousands of businesses to close.

The jobless rate for April was up from a revised 22 percent in March, Greece's statistics service ELSTAT said on Thursday. It also marked a sharp rise from 16.2 percent in April last year.

Analysts said the jobless rate could tick up further, despite a brief respite thanks to the summer tourism season.

"Some temporary support may be provided over the summer months, especially from the tourism sector," said Platon Monokroussos, an economist at EFG Eurobank.

"However, given the fact that the jobless rate is a lagging indicator of broader economic activity, unemployment may not have reached its peak yet."

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's coalition government is struggling to reconcile opposing demands from lenders for austerity cuts to bring Greece's finances back on track and growing anger from Greeks struggling to make ends meet.

The government took power after re-run elections on June 17 on a promise to renegotiate the harsh austerity terms in the bailout, but it has since softened its stance as it risks running out of money in weeks without further aid.

A think-tank formerly run by the new finance minister this week said the crippled economy will contract a steeper-than-expected 6.9 percent this year, piling more misery on Greeks who have already suffered steep cuts to wages and pensions.

"NOTHING OUT THERE"

In particular, tourism - a key sector which accounts for about one in five jobs - is expected to be weak this year after revenue tumbled by 15.1 percent in the first quarter.

Strikes as well as violent anti-government protests have dented the Mediterranean country's image abroad, with significantly fewer German and British tourists visiting its ancient ruins and sun-drenched islands this year.

Unemployment in Greece is twice the average for the 17 countries sharing the euro, which stood at 11.1 percent in May, and is fast approaching that of Spain, which hit 24.4 percent in the first quarter.

Greece's recession, one of the worst in postwar Europe, has put more than one in five people out of work and more than half of Greeks aged 15-24 are without a job.

"We've looked everywhere from schools to bars and gas stations - nothing. There's nothing out there," school teacher Martha Antoniou, 53, said of her son who is in his 20s and has been looking for a job since the crisis erupted two years ago.

With the government promising to implement 3 billion euros worth of previously agreed austerity measures in the coming months to get its reform program back on track, Greeks fear the pain will only intensify in the days ahead.

"What will happen in September with the new taxes?" said Antoniou, who supports her two unemployed children with her monthly salary of less than 1,000 euros.

"Things are only getting worse."

(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and Tatiana Fragou, Editing by Deepa Babington)

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