* Unemployment hits highest level since March 2005
* Civil servants to join Feb. 24 private sector strike
* Brussels may seek more cutbacks under bailout plan
(adds unemployment data, details)
By Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas
ATHENS, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Greek unemployment hit its highest rate in nearly five years on Thursday and civil servants said they were stepping up strike action against the government’s austerity measures.
Greece’s unadjusted unemployment rate jumped to 10.6 percent in November from 7.8 percent a year earlier, reaching its highest level since March 2005, the national statistics service (NSS) said.
It was the largest year-on-year increase in unemployment since records began in 2004. The jobless rate was particularly high among the young -- a factor in fuelling street protests in recent years -- with 27.8 percent of 15-24 year-olds unemployed.
Economists said the rise was fuelled by uncertainty surrounding last October’s general elections and the financial crisis enveloping Greece, which had stalled private and public sector investment.
“We had an improvement in business expectations until October but after that month we had a decline because of the financial crisis,” said Dimitris Maroulis, economist at Alpha Bank.
The data came as European Union leaders gathered in Brussels laid the foundations for a financial bailout for Greece, which was expected to demand deep fiscal and economic adjustments from Athens in the face of strong union opposition [ID:nLDE61A0W2].
Greece’s powerful ADEDY public sector union, which held a 24-hour strike on Wednesday [ID:nLDE6190NM], said it would join another one-day stoppage by the private sector union GSEE on Feb. 24 in protest at wage and pension freezes and job cuts announced earlier this week.
The two unions, which together group half of Greece’s 5 million-strong workforce, say it is the poorest who will suffer from a government package designed to bring down the budget deficit from 12.7 percent of GDP last year -- the highest in the euro zone.
“After the announcement of the measures, civil servants decided to escalate their struggle, declaring they should not pay for the crisis,” said ADEDY Vice President Ilias Vrettakos. “We will move to a 24-hour strike, joining the private sector on Feb. 24.”
Civil servants walked off the job on Wednesday to protest against the government’s deficit-cutting plan, but their march to parliament was thinly attended, offering hope Athens can push through measures to tackle a debt mountain due to top 120 percent of GDP this year.
Alpha Bank’s Maroulis said he expected unemployment to stabilise in 2010 and then start falling when private and public sector investment picks up.
But Diego Iscaro of IHS Global Insight struck a grimmer tone.
“The outlook for the labour market is extremely challenging,” he said. “We believe that higher unemployment, combined with significantly tighter fiscal conditions, will hit private consumption, which represents around 70 percent of GDP.” (Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Hari Papachristou, editing by Mike Peacock)