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October 22, 2003

Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor, Chris Spear Briefs on Iraqi Ministry Of Labor And Social Affairs

(Also participating was [Iraq] Director of Employment, Fatin Al-Saeda, Director of Information and Technology, Evelyn Rasho and Director of Employment and Vocational Training Center, Sawsan Mahdi.)

MODERATOR: Good afternoon. We have three guests with us today from the new Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. They're in the United States from Baghdad this week to study U.S. Department of Labor programs for employment, training and business development.

Joining us also is the Honorable Chris Spear, assistant secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor, who will introduce our guests.

Mr. Spear?

SPEAR: Thank you, Colonel. Thank you for having us over to the Department of Defense.

This is Sawsan Mahdi, Fatin Al-Saeda, and this is Evelyn Rasho. Each of these women are from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in Iraq. I had the pleasure of serving with these women, and many of their colleagues, at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs from the months of May through August, for the Coalition Provisional Authority...and I served as senior adviser.

And I had the pleasure to meet many talented Iraqi ministry employees during my tenure in Iraq. These three women included, are here today to learn how to build an employment and training system within Iraq. And the reason I say that is because shortly after the war, there were many unknowns, of which the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs was one that the United States was not very familiar with. And upon my arrival, I learned that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs did not have much labor, if any at all, within it, that it did not have an unemployment insurance program, did not have a workers compensation program, and it certainly did not have a national employment and training program, which we find critical in these coming months to providing new skills, new marketable skills, to displaced Iraqi citizens.

And they will be building these centers through many large cities first throughout Iraq, where displaced Iraqi citizens can come and receive employment services, such as being registered, resume-building, counseling, job referral, as well as being registered for training. And the training curriculum will be built to reflect jobs that actually exist in Iraq. And for some time, many people were trained to build arms and do things that were not contributing to the economic fabric of the country. The type of training these women will be developing in Iraq is going to be more reflective along the lines of construction, trades such as electricity, roofing, plumbing, as well as agriculture, and the things that will contribute long-term to the growth and also provide long-term employment stability to individuals so they can provide for themselves, their families, as well as Iraq itself.

So with that, I think we would like to take some questions from you. These women are here this week and into next week with the Department of Labor. They are touring many of our sites, our one-stop employment centers, to learn all about how a system runs. They're probably learning more than they will probably need in Iraq; they will probably start with the basics. But they are seeing many components and meeting with several senior officials within the Department of Labor to learn more about these centers. We will also be taking them next week to a center in St. Paul, Minnesota, so they can get outside of Washington a little bit and see how that works in the field, as well. So by and large, the majority of their time here this week is for one purpose only, and that is to be trained and visit and learn more about our employment system so they can take that home with them to be of value to the Iraqi people long-term.

So with that, we can take some questions. Please?

QUESTION: I wonder if I might ask what areas do you think will provide the most jobs in Iraq? Is it building infrastructure, rebuilding infrastructure that's been allowed to go down over the years? Where will jobs come from, chiefly?

SPEAR: I'll go ahead and start. In my experience, many areas. And I'll let the three women answer the question. They'll have to build the system first, and the curriculum will be built long-term around the jobs in demand. So, the curriculum will change, pending on the jobs that are in need. Right now, it's obvious: things are infrastructure, construction, agriculture. The country was fed for free for many, many years by oil-for-food, so they had no ag [agriculture] industry. There was no point; it can't compete against free food. So, they will need to build an agricultural infrastructure to provide and feed for itself. So, that will be integral.

But, please, Sawsan.

MS. MAHDI: Hello. From the beginning, you know, we have been -- in Baghdad, so many firms, so many companies have been coming to Iraq in this period of time after the war, and the aim of these companies is to reconstruction of our country. So, the first region for those people who cannot find jobs is the field of reconstruction of our country. So many buildings has been destroyed, besides so many buildings we need to build in our country: hospitals, schools, government buildings. So this field is the first field; besides, so many fields that been vanished within those 10 or more than 10 years, such as tourism regions, historicals, and Islamic shrines that we have, and no active tourism that's been around there, so agricultural lands we'll establish because of the refill of the marshes in the south of Iraq.

So many changes have happened in our country, so I think there is a great chance of finding jobs for Iraqi people.

Q: Can --

SPEAR: Please. Feel free to ask.

Q: Do you have an estimate of what the current unemployment rate is in the country? And also, I'm curious, did all three of you work in a ministry before the war, during -- and what did the ministry do during -- ?

MS. MAHDI: The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs work deals with social welfare and about the employment. It has been work for -- in the 17th -- but within those 20 years, it's vanished. So we have started to establish about -- the plan is to establish 27 employment and vocational training centers in all governates, all over Iraq. We have been started at the beginning a new center in Baghdad and three centers in other governates. And to the end of June 2004, we should establish 27 centers in all governates, depending on the population of each. Maybe one governate need two centers. It depends upon the population and the area of this city.

Q: The unemployment rate? Do you know?

MS. MAHDI: Pardon?

Q: The rate of unemployment in the country currently?

MS. MAHDI: It's vanished, as I told you. No employment (statistics) for more than 20 years.

Q: No employment?

MS. MAHDI: No employment. [Note: There are no employment statistics for Iraq.]

SPEAR: The vast majority -- there is no Bureau of Labor Statistics in Iraq, or a census, so it was very difficult for the international community as well as the United States to really determine how many people are unemployed. We estimate, out of the 23 million people in Iraq, about 7 million people are in the workforce, and a good majority of them are public employees, employed by the government, either a ministry or a state-owned enterprise, which is owned by the ministry. So as we transition into the private growth in the country, as Sawson just said, I mean, there's going to be many markets, such as agriculture and around the country, where we're going to create private growth. And the centers that these women will be building will be training people for those private-sector occupations as they grow over time. Probably -- I'd say probably, if you wanted an estimate, most people in the international community think it's around 50 percent, which really doesn't mean a whole lot, because --

Q: Well, with the numbers you indicated, it wouldn't be much less than 50 percent.

SPEAR: Well, there are a number -- a number of ministries. You have 500,000 in the military that obviously are no longer employed; we will be re-registering them. These women just came back from Amman, Jordan, before coming here. They were trained in Amman to work toward registering, starting with the 500,000 military people. We're paying stipends, as I think you well know, through the Ministry of National Security and Defense in Iraq. And as they pay them stipends, when they come in for those payments, we want to register them so we know who they are, what their skills are, where they live, so that when these centers are open we know where those people are and that we can help them and serve them better, and hopefully provide them training.

Q: Question for Fatin, please. Can you tell me, if you can come to the microphones, too --


Q: Can you tell me whether the United States economy, with its heavy reliance on service sector jobs, might somehow be replicated in Iraq, where you don't really have a corporate structure right now for those kind of satisfying, long-term jobs? Do you think you'll be having these kind of short-term, fairly low-wage service sector jobs as you look for opportunities in your country?

MS. AL-SAEDE: Can you please --

SPEAR: Can you repeat it just one --

Q: Do you think that Iraq stands the best project -- prospect to create service sector jobs, like fast food, or working in your equivalent of department stores, rather than big, corporate-type executive jobs? What kind of jobs do you expect to create?

MS. AL-SAEDE: In Iraq? I think we need factories in Iraq. Also we need to work -- in Iraq we have a good chance -- a great chance for tourism, you know, because Iraq has many historical sites. We hope -- we expect that tourism will provide many jobs in Iraq. Also, the building of infrastructure because of the war, as you know, we need to rebuild our infrastructure.

Q: Can you predict at this point what sort of rate of job growth, either by quarter or on an annual basis, this time next year, what percentage or what number of jobs you might be able to --

MS. AL-SAEDE: No, I cannot tell, no.

SPEAR: Please.

Q: Do you have in mind any particular kind of training for former members of the military, that they would be channeled in some certain direction?

MS. AL-SAEDE: Okay, our training will depend about the demand of the labor market, about the demand of our country.

Q: Iraq -- Iraq -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is a country where you have a high rate of education. People are well-educated, generally. Are many people now without jobs going to have to face having jobs that they weren't trained for, jobs -- menial jobs? For instance, engineers and lawyers, will they have to be doing work in department stores and building buildings and -- to begin with, before you develop a corporate structure of private businesses, will people with -- well-educated people have to do jobs like painters and building buildings and things like that? You see what I mean?

MS. MAHDI: Yes. I think --

Q: Is that a reality for the short term?

MS. MAHDI: Yes, well I think we have expected a larger -- a wide range of jobs, different jobs, so these people that you talk about them, high-educated, I'm sure they -- I hope and I'm sure they're going to get jobs of their education. Yes. Because even building a structure or a -- to build a building, we need engineers of different fields: civilian, electrical -- you know, so many fields of engineering. So we hope we can make use of those qualifications in this field. So, that is dependent upon the situation there. We have just started, about in the middle of September, and we will -- when we're getting back to home, shall -- we will hope to find something to do, active for our people.

Q: Are you women encouraged by the prospect for creating jobs over the short term? Are you worried that things are moving too slowly now? Are you encouraged about the prospects of creating a lot of jobs over the short term?

MS. AL-SAEDE: No. No, we think that things getting better in Iraq, and jobs will be available as more companies came to take share in rebuilding Iraq.

SPEAR: Anyone else?

Q: Thank you very much.

SPEAR: We really appreciate the time. This has been a wonderful opportunity for these women. We hope to continue bringing employees within the ministry that aren't politically appointed -- just actual people that will be doing this type of work to train them, teach them more about how to do these services. So, this is a step in that direction. We really appreciate your time.

Thank you.

Q: Good luck, all of you.

Ms. Mahdi, Ms. Al-Saede, Ms. Rasho: Thank you.