Thai Q1 jobless rate at 12-year high amid virus outbreaks

* Q1 unemployment rate at 1.96%, highest since Q1 of 2009

* Job losses may rise again due to latest outbreak

* Outbreak to affect more than 7 million tourism jobs

* Q1 employment up slightly, helped by farm sector

BANGKOK, May 24 (Reuters) - Thailand’s unemployment rate hit a 12-year high in the first quarter of 2021 due to the renewed impact of coronavirus outbreaks, as the country reimposed measures to contain a third wave of infections, the state planning agency said on Monday.

The Southeast Asian country’s latest, more severe outbreak has seen overall cases nearly quadruple since early April, and deaths increase six-fold.

The unemployment rate was 1.96% in the January-March quarter, representing 758,000 workers without jobs, up from 1.86% in the previous quarter, state agency data showed.

The rate was the highest since 2.08% recorded in the first quarter of 2009 during the global financial crisis.

“The unemployment rate increased drastically and is expected to rise again, reflecting the ongoing impact of COVID-19,” Danucha Pichayanan, head of the National Economic and Social Development Council, told a briefing.

Unemployment slowed in the second half of 2020, when earlier outbreaks were contained before re-emerging this year.

The official definition of being unemployed in Thailand is quite narrow, including only those who do not work a single hour in a surveyed week and excluding those with a business or owning farms, while analysts note it does not catch the significant unofficial economy.

The prolonged COVID-19 outbreak may prevent the economy from growing as targeted as economic activity has slowed, Danucha said.

Last week, the NESDB cut its 2021 economic growth outlook to 1.5%-2.5% from 2.5%-3.5%, predicting only half a million foreign tourists after the new wave of virus cases. Thailand had nearly 40 million visitors in 2019.

The outbreak will delay a recovery in tourism, affecting more than 7 million tourism workers, Danucha said.

However, the number of employed workers reached 37.6 million in the March quarter, up 0.4% from a year ago due to higher employment in the agricultural sector, which has absorbed some of the workers laid off in other sectors since 2020. (Reporting by Orathai Sriring and Satawasin Staporncharnchai Editing by Ed Davies)