UPDATE 1-South Africa's unemployment rate reaches new record high in first quarter

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PRETORIA, June 1 (Reuters) - South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to a new record high of 32.6% in the first quarter of 2021 from 32.5% in the final quarter of 2020, the statistics agency said on Tuesday.

The rate was the highest since the quarterly labour force survey began in 2008.

Statistics South Africa put the number of unemployed at 7.242 million people in the three months to the end of March, up from 7.233 million people in the previous three months.

Africa’s most industrialised economy has long suffered from extremely high levels of unemployment, trapping millions in poverty and contributing to stark inequalities that persist nearly three decades after the end of apartheid in 1994.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated South Africa’s labour market woes. The economy was in recession before the country recorded its first coronavirus infection in March last year.

Statistics South Africa said job losses in the first quarter were recorded mostly in construction, followed by trade, private households, transport and agriculture sectors.

“Construction has been depressed for quite some time has shown losses on the side of GDP as well as employment for a long time,” Statistician General Risenga Maluleke told a news conference.

Construction, with 87,000 job losses in the quarter, accounts for 7.2% of total employment and 2.9% of gross domestic product (GDP), while trade, which lost 84,000 jobs, accounts for 19.9% of employment and 16.2% of GDP.

According to an expanded definition of unemployment that includes those discouraged from seeking work, 43.2% of the labour force was without work in the January-March quarter, from 42.6% in the final quarter of 2020. (Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana, writing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Editing by Andrew Heavens, William Maclean)