ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's jobless rate hit a record high of 27.9 percent in June, data showed on Thursday, as the labour market continued to buckle in a deep recession with austerity policies linked to the country's bailout.
Unemployment rose from 27.6 percent in May, and was more than twice the average rate in the euro zone of 12.1 percent in July. The latest reading was the highest since Greek statistics service ELSTAT began publishing monthly jobless data in 2006.
Such data, however, tends to lag other growth indicators, which Eurobank economist Platon Monokroussos said were painting a slightly less bleak picture.
"Recent data for the annual change in employment and new private sector hirings suggest the jobless rate may be approaching a cyclical peak," he said.
Government officials have also suggested that there are tentative signs of Greece having hit bottom, including in unemployment.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said last week he believed the 2013 slump would be smaller than forecast and economic pain would ease next year.
A government official told Reuters on Monday the economy would shrink by less than 4 percent this year versus the 4.2 percent forecast by international lenders.
The government was now looking at a 3.8 percent contraction this year, a government official said, confirming a report in financial daily Naftemporiki.
The ELSTAT figures showed a 1.2 percent month-on-month drop in seasonally unadjusted unemployment, the biggest recorded since May 2008. This means that joblessness is set to fall in the coming months, according to a labour ministry official speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Sustained month-on-month drops in seasonally unadjusted figures would point to a change in trend, ELSTAT said.
In addition, tourism, which accounts for about a fifth of Greece's economic output and one in five jobs is having a bumper season. Revenues are seen rising 10 percent in 2013, to 11 billion euros, with more than 17 million visitors - a record - expected.
The overall unemployment rate has nonetheless more than tripled since 2008, the start of a six-year recession which has wiped out about a quarter of Greece's economy.
Joblessness is a major headache for the government as it scrambles to hit fiscal targets and carry out structural reforms demanded by its international creditors.
YOUTH HARDEST HIT
Correcting Greece's economic imbalances has come at a very high cost. Data showed those aged 15 to 24 remained the hardest-hit as the jobless rate in this age group, excluding students and military conscripts, registered 58.8 percent.
With the economy in its sixth straight year of recession and 1.4 million people officially without jobs, the pain is felt across the board with borrowers falling behind on loans and fewer workers paying into state pension funds.
A turnaround will take time to be felt in the labour market even if recovery sets in next year as authorities project. The central bank sees unemployment peaking at 28 percent before it starts to decline in 2015.
The European Union and the IMF, which bankroll Greece, expect unemployment will average out at 27 percent this year and ease to 26 percent in 2014. Greece's largest private sector labour union GSEE has a more grim outlook, expecting it to climb to 29-30 percent this year and hit 31.5 percent in 2014.
Greece's anti-bailout leftists have taken a narrow opinion poll lead over Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's ruling conservatives, two opinion polls published on Thursday showed.
If elections were held today, the opposition Syriza party would get 29 percent of the vote versus 28 percent for Samaras's New Democracy party, a poll by public issue for Skai TV found.
A second poll by Pulse for the To Pontiki newspaper put support for Syriza at 23 percent, giving it a 1.5 percentage point lead over New Democracy.
(Reporting by George Georgiopoulos, Karolina Tagaris and Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)
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