A United Nations report on Thursday revealed 185.9 million people, or about 6.2% of the total labour force, were out of work - the highest unemployment figure ever recorded.

There was, however, only a marginal increase on the 2002 figure, when 185.4 million people were jobless.

About 108.1 million of the unemployed were men, up from 600,000 in
 2002. Among women, there was a slight decline to 77.8 million in 2003 from 77.9 million in 2002.

Hardest hit were the 88.2 million young people with an unemployment rate of 14.4%, the United Nations International Labour Organization report said.

SARS impact

Meanwhile, in poorer countries the "informal economy" of people without fixed jobs or steady self-employment has grown.

And the "working poor" - defined as those living on $1 a day or less - has remained at an estimated 550 million.

"We can reverse this trend and reduce poverty if policy-makers stop treating employment as an afterthought and place decent work at the heart of macroeconomic and social policies"

Juan Somavia,
ILO Director-General

The ILO report said unemployment and underemployment during the first half of 2003 rose because of the slow pace of the upturn in the industrialised world's economies.

It was also affected by the negative impact of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) on employment in Asia.

A drop in tourism and travel employment also resulted from armed conflicts.

Recovery

However, the worldwide economic recovery in the second half of the year may have helped to improve the situation, according to the report.

"Our greatest concern is that if the recovery falters and our hopes for more and better jobs are further delayed, many countries will fail to cut poverty by half as targeted by the Millennium Development Goals for 2015," ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said.

"But we can reverse this trend and reduce poverty if policy-makers stop treating employment as an afterthought and place decent work at the heart of macroeconomic and social policies."

He added: "It's too early to say the worst is over. However, if current estimates of global growth and domestic demand hold steady or improve over the coming year, the global employment picture may brighten somewhat in 2004."