* Unemployment rises to 22.6 pct
* Highest quarterly unemployment rate on record
* Number of officially unemployed hits 1.12 mln
* Young people hit hardest, 52.7 pct jobless
By George Georgiopoulos
ATHENS, June 14 Greek unemployment hit a record
high in the first quarter of 2012, data showed on Thursday, days
before the country votes again on whether to back the harsh
austerity needed to appease international lenders or risk a
chaotic exit from the euro zone.
The jobless rate hit 22.6 percent in the first three months
of the year - double the euro zone average - reflecting the deep
economic malaise that forced many voters to reject austerity in
an inconclusive election early last month.
The data will provide ammunition to politicians campaigning
against the bailout terms imposed on the country by the IMF, the
EU and European Central Bank.
Pollsters say the vote is too close to call. The last
published surveys showed the conservative New Democracy party,
which backs the 130 billion euro bailout, running neck-and-neck
with the leftist SYRIZA, which wants to cancel the rescue deal.
The statistics service said the number officially unemployed
reached 1.12 million in the first quarter, up 57.3 percent
year-on-year, feeding public discontent and hurting consumer
confidence ever more.
"Employment is still shrinking rapidly in construction and
manufacturing. Even the more resilient sectors like wholesale,
retail trade and tourism are taking a hit," said National Bank
economist Nikos Magginas.
In the year to the end of March, the number of jobs in the
construction sector fell 18 percent while those in the
manufacturing sector dropped 15 percent, based on Reuters
Magginas said falling labour costs and progress in corporate
restructuring should help contain the trend in the medium term
but weakness in tourism does not bode well in the quarters
Tourism, which accounts for about one in five jobs, is
expected to turn out weak this year. Revenue tumbled by 15.1
percent to 396.3 million euros in the first quarter, central
bank data showed.
After almost five years of severe recession, those Greeks
who can are seeking work abroad.
"I was lucky to find work in my field in Ireland at a small
software firm with good terms," said Argyris Markakis, 29, who
will move to Ireland soon after unsuccessfully searching for
work for months in Greece.
"I don't see the job market improving any time soon with
these policies of austerity," he said. "I decided to quit my
former job after the firm I worked for fell four months behind
in paying our salaries," he said.
YOUNG HIT HARDEST
The statistics agency data showed unemployment rose from
20.7 percent in the previous quarter and 15.9 percent in the
same period in 2011. Greece is now fast approaching the jobless
plight seen in Spain, where unemployment hit 24.4 percent in the
Young Greeks have been hardest hit by the country's
protracted economic slump. In the 15-24 age group the jobless
rate was 52.7 percent, the data showed, up from 39.6 percent in
the same period a year ago.
This has driven many young people to vote for the radical
leftist SYRIZA party, which came second in last month's election
and which is hoping to do even better this time.
The party has promised to renegotiate the bailout and ditch
or dilute the austerity measures that go with it, a move the
country's lenders say may force Athens to leave the euro zone.
Greece's 215 billion euro economy slumped by 6.5 percent in
the first quarter and is projected to remain in recession for a
fifth consecutive year in 2012, contracting 5.0 to 5.3 percent
based on central bank and OECD forecasts.
The economic downturn is making it harder for the government
to meet revenue targets and cut the budget gap, raising the risk
that yet more belt-tightening may be necessary.