Chronic unemployment helped to spark the Arab Spring that toppled rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as well as triggering the present strife in Syria.
But while the political landscape is changing, 15 months later, an estimated 25 million people across the Middle East and North Africa remain out of work.
"We are in a new realm and need to carve out a new social contract targeting wages, working and living standards, not just economic growth," says Nada Al Nashif, the regional director for Arab states for the International Labour Organization (ILO). She adds, however, that progress is being made to bring jobs to the troubled states of the Middle East and North Africa.
q: Anger over a lack of jobs helped to fuel the unrest in the region. How much have these issues been addressed?
a: We have more of an idea of the challenges ahead. We have to create between 50 million and 70 million jobs during the next decade. Now, in the next two or three years, we hope to see some progress. A large number of demands were embodied in the Arab Spring, including the desire for freedom and social justice. But structural problems need to be dealt with. One is creating more jobs, but also better-quality jobs. Another is aligning labour, trade and macroeconomic policies to focus on employment. We are starting to see the first building blocks being laid. There are huge programmes to create jobs starting in Tunisia and Egypt, and there is a pipeline to do this in Libya and Yemen as well as national employment policies starting in Jordan and Iraq. But the part we need to tackle is turning policies into action.
q: Tunisia and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa have a high number of young graduates without jobs. How can education and the needs of the labour market be better matched?
a: It is clear we need better links between educational training and the world of work. We need to involve the private sector more to ensure the education system reflects their needs. We need more private-sector participation on education boards, and more investment in job training and education. Arab employers complain the most about a lack of market-relevant skills in young people, but they invest the least in education and job training. There has been a sort of myth that we don't have enough skilled workers in many countries, but that's not true. We have been exporting a large number of skilled workers who leave to find jobs elsewhere.
q: How do you assess the ease of doing business across the region?
a: There's a lot of weakness in the business environment, which is stopping job creation. Regulations need to be lifted to make it easier for young people to start businesses. We are working with regional [chambers of commerce] to try to change this and help people start and maintain businesses. The private sector is vital as the public sector is bloated and cannot absorb any more labour. Some of the indicators used to gauge ease of doing business infringe on labour standards. We think a sustainable business is about continuity and sharing profits, not short-term gains and the ease of firing. Bargaining rights of employees also need to be strengthened, and Egypt seems to be making progress towards this. Another problem is that a lot of work goes on in the informal sector that is unregulated, and governments need to work to bring people into the formal economy.
q: Unemployment among women is one of the most pressing concerns in the Arab region. What progress is being made to address this?
a: Female unemployment is a substantial loss of economic potential in the Middle East. Women's participation in the labour force was only 18.4 per cent last year, the lowest aggregate rate in the world, compared with 74 per cent for men. The problem is they are discouraged by cultural and social gender divisions … We are looking to address this issue. But getting women into work is only part of the challenge. We also need pay equity, as quite often they are doing the same jobs as men, but on less pay. Maternity benefit is another area that needs developing. Cutting out discrimination and harassment, and, generally, improving the image of the workplace will help encourage more female participation.
q: Is economic growth alone a good measure of whether we have met the aspirations of the Arab Spring?
a: Before the uprisings, Egypt and Tunisia had impressive growth of about 5 to 6 per cent, but it was not inclusive growth, and did not benefit a lot of society. Now we need to put equity consideration and job creation at the heart of growth. If we don't, and sit on the volcano, it will erupt again.