The number of unemployed Filipinos decreased in November as mobility curbs were further relaxed, but job quality continued to worsen with more employed Filipinos still looking for more work.
The preliminary estimates of the Philippine Statistics Authority’s November round of the labor force survey (LFS) put the unemployment rate at 6.5%, compared with 7.4% in the October round.
This was the lowest jobless rate since the agency started releasing the report on a monthly basis in 2021. Including the quarterly releases, it was the lowest since the 5.3% recorded in January 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
In absolute terms, there were 3.159 million unemployed Filipinos in November, down from 3.504 million in October.
The government placed Metro Manila under the more relaxed Alert Level 2 staring November, allowing businesses to increase capacity and removing age-based mobility restrictions as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases fell.
However, the quality of available jobs worsened as the underemployment rate increased to 16.7% in November from 16.1% in October. This was equivalent to 7.617 million employed Filipinos looking for additional work or longer working hours, from 7.044 million previously.
The underemployment rate in November was the highest in four months or since 20.9% estimated in July.
Average work hours slipped to 39.6 hours that month from 39.7 hours in October.
The size of the labor force was about 48.637 million in November, more than the 47.330 million the month prior. This translated to a labor force participation rate of 64.2% of the working-age population, higher than 62.6% previously.
Meanwhile, the employment rate stood at 93.5% in November, higher than 92.6% in October. This was equivalent to 45.477 million employed individuals during the period from 43.826 million previously.
Services sector accounted for 58.1% of total employment in November, higher than the 57.6% share in October.
Agriculture and industry made up 24.5% (from 24.6%) and 17.4% (from 17.8%) of the total.
In a statement, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said the lower unemployment rate in November follows the imposition of more relaxed Alert Level 2 in various parts of the country that allowed more movement and economic activity.
“Our policies to accelerate vaccination and to shift to the more targeted alert level system with granular lockdowns enabled us to significantly bring down COVID-19 cases and deaths while bringing back more employment,” NEDA Director-General and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua was quoted in the statement as saying.
The NEDA chief also said the government is taking a “proactive” step back as it shifted the capital region as well as other parts of the country to Alert Level 3, while ramping up the vaccination program.
Metro Manila and other areas are currently under Alert Level 3 until Jan. 15 to contain the surge of new COVID-19 infections. This means more mobility restrictions and lower operating capacity up to 30% for some commercial establishments.
Union Bank of the Philippines Chief Economist Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion said the further improvement in the jobless rate reflected the easing of quarantine restrictions in November.
“Although [November] was the lowest unemployment rate in 2021, underemployment still has persisted, and this tells me that the economic scarring threat is becoming obvious with a lot of MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) affected by the pandemic,” Mr. Asuncion said in an e-mail interview.
He added the November underemployment print requires the current and the next administration to “respond better to controlling the negative impact of the pandemic and potentially being stuck with an elevated unemployment rate in the medium-term and the lack of quality jobs to go around for everyone.”
In a note, ING Bank N.V. Manila Branch Senior Economist Nicholas Antonio T. Mapa said that economic reopening helped generate jobs, although job quality was wanting. He noted the looser quarantine restrictions helped companies hire more workers but with shorter shifts.
While there was “decent headway” in job creation, Mr. Mapa noted the current level of employment is still well below the pre-COVID unemployment average of 5.5%.
“Within the fourth quarter, it is natural to assume that as one gets closer to the actual holidays, the pace of economic activities — and thus employment — increases, which is the reason for the lower unemployment rate in November,” Ateneo de Manila University Department of Economics Assistant Professor and Economist Geoffrey M. Ducanes said in a separate e-mail interview.
‘OFF TO BAD START’
Economists expect that the increased consumption during the holidays translated to more jobs in December. This year, an Omicron-driven surge will dictate the already pandemic-battered labor market.
“Hopefully, the Omicron surge will be transitory and infections lower sooner rather than later to expect a better 2022 than initially anticipated,” Mr. Asuncion said.
“As long as the response to the surge of Omicron will be appropriate and sufficient with everyone cooperating, labor market improvement to pre-pandemic levels will not only be a wish list but rather a near reality,” he added.
Mr. Ducanes said the year is off to a “bad start,” with the employment situation expected to deteriorate within the next two months.
The economy and the labor market will not go back to pre-pandemic levels “for a while,” he added.
“Certainly, per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been set back by possibly three to four years. The pandemic is also causing fundamental and long-lasting impacts on the labor market, which it will take the workforce and the economy to fully adjust to,” Mr. Ducanes said.
For Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. Chief Economist Michael L. Ricafort, labor market recovery could take much longer amid tighter restrictions due to surge in new COVID-19 cases.
However, he said that the upcoming May elections may provide more job opportunities in the near term.
“Increased government spending especially on infrastructure to pump-prime the economy and also in preparation for the 2022 presidential elections would also generate more employment/job opportunities for the various infrastructure projects,” Mr. Ricafort said in a note sent to reporters. — Abigail Marie P. Yraola