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Thai jobs slump in January as economy sputters, farm jobs hit

[BANGKOK] Thailand's employment shrank by 430,000 in January from a year earlier, mainly in agriculture and retail businesses, suggesting the economy is still struggling to gain traction after the army took power in May to end months of political unrest.

Employment slipped to 37.36 million last month from 37.79 million in January 2014, when political tensions flared up, the National Statistical Office's labour force survey showed.

It was a sharp slide from 38.66 million jobs in December, although economists said that was due mainly to seasonal factors. About a third of the workforce is engaged in the farm sector, where there is a high degree of off-season unemployment.

Farm jobs slipped by 480,000 in January from the same period last year, the survey published late last week on the statistics office website showed. Employment in retail and auto repairs fell 420,000, while hotel and restaurant jobs declined 50,000. "Many of our workforce are in the agricultural sector, which is now facing a severe drought. Fewer jobs in the retail business suggest consumption is not that good," said Pimonwan Mahujchariyawong, economist with Kasikorn Research Center. "The economy is likely to recover slowly. Sentiment is not good yet. Sectors like tourism just started to recover." Thailand will see its worst drought in more than a decade this year, the irrigation department said last week, damaging crops in one of the world's largest rice exporters.

However, overall non-farm jobs rose by 50,000 in January from a year earlier, with the manufacturing sector adding 350,000 jobs and construction 100,000, the survey showed.

In January, the unemployment rate was 1.06 per cent, the highest since June's 1.15 per cent, and up from 0.56 per cent in December and 0.94 per cent in January last year.

The rate has usually been less than 1 per cent in recent years but could be higher in April-June due to new graduates, analysts said.

Although the coup returned some stability, efforts to get the economy growing have been stymied as exports are week and consumption remains subdued, restrained by high household debt and shaky consumer confidence. The weak economy has put pressure on the junta to speed up infrastructure projects to spur growth.

The central bank expects Southeast Asia's second-largest economy to grow 4 per cent this year after a projected 0.8 per cent expansion in 2014, the weakest since flood-devastated 2011. Official GDP data is due on Feb 16.

REUTERS