MALAGA, Spain — The number of people unemployed in Spain hit an "astronomical" level of 5.4 million at the end of 2011, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Saturday.
The figure is more than 400,000 higher than the level reached in the third quarter of 2011, when the unemployment rate hit a 15-year high of 21.5 percent, the highest in the industrial world.
"This year (2011) is going to close with 5.4 million people... who want to work but cannot," Rajoy said, anticipating official unemployment data due to be published on January 27.
"It is an astronomical figure," he said in a speech to supporters of his conservative Popular Party in Malaga, southern Spain, in which he reaffirmed fighting unemployment as his top priority.
"This is our challenge and all our efforts and all our policies are going to be dedicated to this," he said, without giving a new percentage rate.
Economists have warned that Spain may be back in recession with the economy likely to contract in the first quarter of 2012. The Bank of Spain said the economy shrank in the last quarter of 2011.
The last comparable unemployment figure from the National Statistics Institute at the end of September 2011 showed 4.98 million people were unemployed, up from 4.83 million at the end of June.
A figure of 5.4 million for the last quarter of 2011 would therefore indicate that the growth in unemployment has speeded up.
Rajoy came to power last month after winning November 20 elections on promises of creating jobs and cutting Spain's deficit. He has launched tough spending cuts and is planning labour market reforms.
Credit ratings agency Standard and Poor's on Friday downgraded Spain's credit rating by two notches, while also cutting that of eight other European countries.
"We could lower the ratings again if additional labour market and other growth-enhancing reforms are delayed or we consider them to be insufficient to reduce the high unemployment rate," it warned.
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