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Spain jobless rate falls in 2014 for second straight year

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(MADRID) - Spain's unemployment rate fell for the second straight year in 2014 to 23.7 percent as an economic recovery gained pace, but remains at one of the highest levels in the European Union, official data showed Thursday.

Joblessness fell from 25.73 percent in 2013 as the country's large services sector took on more staff, driven by a strong tourist season and construction activity also picked up, the National Statistics Institute said.

The fall was greater than what had been expected by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government, which had forecast the country would end 2014 with a jobless rate of 24.2 percent.

The Spanish economy, the eurozone's fourth-largest, has enjoyed modest but steady growth since emerging in mid-2013 from its second recession after the collapse of a property bubble in 2008 which brought Spain to the verge of default and threw millions of people out of work.

The number of people without jobs fell last year by 433,900. Employment increased by 344,200 positions in the services sector, 98,000 in industry and 40,000 in construction.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government estimates the economy will have expanded by 1.4 percent in 2014 and will grow by 2.0 percent in 2015, a faster growth rate than is expected in France, Germany and Italy.

Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said the government's forecasts could be revised upwards.

"I think these figures could be better," he said during an interview with private television La Sexta.

Rajoy, who is facing a general election at the end of the year, credits a 2012 labour law reform which has made it easier for employers to lay off workers or reduce their wages, thus reducing their risk in creating jobs.

But unions say the reforms unfairly favour employers and destroy hard-fought rights and have only helped create low wage and short-term jobs.

A total of 5.46 million people were unemployed in Spain at the end of 2014, according to the statistics office.

The jobless rate remains the highest in the European Union after Greece's, which stood at 25.8 percent at the end of October.

Economists warn that the sky-high jobless rate is still a major drag on an economic turnaround in Spain, with many households struggling to make ends meet and youths failing to enter the workforce.

The jobless rate among those under the age of 25 stands at 51.8 percent while the number of Spanish households all family members in the workforce are out of work fell by 23,100 to 1.77 million in 2014.

The government predicts Spain's unemployment rate will drop to 22.2 percent at the end of 2015.

The International Labour Organization is more pessimistic. In its latest forecasts published on Tuesday it predicted Spain will have a jobless rate of 23.8 percent at the end of 2015. It sees the country's jobless rate remaining above 20 percent until the end of the decade.

Spanish second-largest bank BBVA forecasts it will take 8-10 years for Spain's jobless rate to return to the levels close to those that existed before the property bubble collapsed.

Spain's unemployment rate stood at 8.57 percent in 2007, its lowest annual level since the country returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

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