In 2019, over 60,000 people in Belize had employment in the country’s tourism industry. The country’s relatively small economy is primarily dependent on tourism, which accounts for 40% of the country’s GDP and 70% of export proceeds. When the COVID-19 pandemic crossed borders into Central America, unemployment levels rose dramatically with the swift restrictions that were placed on international travel and other major industries. This growth in unemployment was coupled with a simultaneous growth in unemployment inequality in Belize, as the women of Belize found themselves more at risk of unemployment than men.
Unemployment on the Rise
Toward the end of 2019, unemployment began to rise in Belize. Reports indicated a jump from 7.7% to 10.4% in the last quarter. Some suggested that this increase in the unemployment rate was due to an unprecedented growth of the labor force and an insufficient job market. Specifically, women found themselves out of employment more than their male counterparts. Figures indicated that an increase in women entering the workforce effectively flooded the labor market, where there were not enough available jobs.
In all the districts of Belize, unemployment rose significantly in 2019. Research indicates that around 6,200 people found themselves unemployed from April 2019 to September of the same year alone. A staggering three-quarters of this demographic were women.
As COVID-19 crept into the country the following year, it became apparent this pattern was set to continue. COVID-19 created the biggest contraction within Belize’s economy to date, which was already in a precarious way prior to the pandemic. ‘Substantial declines’ in vital industries such as tourism, led to a further increase in unemployment inequality in Belize, which continued from 2020 to 2021.
Impacts of Unemployment
Food Insecurity: The rising unemployment rate in Belize had many profound impacts on affected households. Notably, COVID-19 and unemployment directly correlated with an increase in food insecurity and hunger for Belizeans. 25% of households reported that they were skipping meals as a result of economic struggles from the pandemic, and many children who had main meals at school found their access to food restricted as school closures were imposed across the country.
Gender Inequality: The intersection of gender and unemployment in Belize resulted in a widening gap in unemployment inequality. Micro and small enterprises were hit particularly hard by the pandemic, resulting in many closing down and workers finding themselves unemployed. The majority of business owners within these micro and small enterprises were women, making them particularly vulnerable to unemployment.
On job recovery since COVID-19, this pattern of unemployment inequality continued. 21% of jobs held by men were not recovered after the pandemic, yet 38% of jobs held by women were not recovered. This has led to an increase in unemployment inequality in Belize as more women are finding themselves unemployed than men.
However, despite this staggering widening of unemployment inequality in Belize, the government has implemented measures which are proving to be relatively effective so far. Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena for the Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean (ECLAC) has identified that in order to reduce the prevalent poverty and hunger rates in Belize, employment policy must be at the center of government policy making. In response, the government has built on the Horizon 2030 Vision Project, which has been running since 2010 to support long term development in Belize.
The Horizon 2030 Vision is focusing on increasing employment opportunities in the Northern Triangle and Southern Region of Belize, for all Belizeans, including women and indigenous people. These two priority areas are seeing investment and protection of small and medium enterprises, and an increase in trade agreements such as the Belize-Guatemala border, in the aim of job creation.
Since Belize implemented this in 2021, a steady decrease in unemployment has been seen as the country begins to reverse the negative impacts of COVID-19. Between 2021 and 2022, unemployment decreased by over half from 10.2% to 5%. This was coupled with a significant increase in the country’s GDP as economic performance and productivity was boosted, which is expected to continue.
To tackle the inequality amongst unemployed persons in Belize, the government increased funding for targeted social spending, such as BOOST, a cash transfer program designed to support families in sending their children to school. This program has been successful in increasing enrolment figures which has directly resulted in increasing the female labor force participation in Belize. As of October 2022, female participation in the labor market stands at 44%. This is a positive result which is indicative of a continuing trend of tackling unemployment inequality in Belize.
– Ariana Mortazavi