The number of workers laid off by state-owned enterprises shot up by 217,000 in the first quarter of the year, it was reported yesterday. The total reached 6.6 million by the end of March - 9.2 per cent of all state employees - according to statistics from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, reported by Xinhua. Highlighting the seriousness of the situation, the People's Daily published a front-page editorial saying job creation had become the number one task for cadres. The newspaper called on cadres to look after laid-off workers and find jobs for them. 'This is our number one task because it is crucial to the nation and holds the key to our state-owned enterprise reform,' the paper said. The figure cited by Xinhua refers to workers who, despite being laid off by state-owned enterprises, continue to maintain links with them and receive benefits. The number of workers officially registered as unemployed stands at 5.7 million. The northeast had been hardest hit by the lay-offs, said Xinhua. In Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning provinces more than 1.5 million state-owned enterprise workers - 23 per cent of the national total - have lost their jobs. The news agency said many of the workers had worked in coal mining, textiles, forestry and the mechanical industries. More than 770,000 of the mainland's textile workers had lost their jobs and one in four forestry workers had been made redundant. Cuts were also beginning to bite in enterprises owned by the military. Xinhua said most laid-off workers were elderly and had little education. They would have great difficulty finding new work because many of them were women with few skills. State media have stepped up coverage of unemployment recently, hoping the extra publicity would pacify laid-off workers around the country and encourage more people to look for work despite the economic downturn. A spokesman for the All-China Federation of Trade Unions criticised the redundancy policy of some state firms and demanded stricter government control. Some firms had violated workers' rights by laying them off without valid reason, Feng Lei told China Daily. 'Workers lost their jobs because employers thought they were too old,' he said. 'Some small enterprises laid off urban workers to employ cheap migrant workers.'