A 1999 estimate reported the economically active population of Brazil at 79 million. In 2002, nearly 23% was engaged in agriculture, 53% in services, and 24% in industry. In 2001, an estimated 6.4% of the workforce was unemployed.
Several major schemes have been under way since the 1960s to expand Brazil's industrial workforce. The National Industrial Apprenticeship Service provides training for industrial workers; similar training for workers in commerce is provided by the National Commercial Apprenticeship Service. The Center for Technical Education was founded in 1967 in accordance with a plan to improve production in the north and northeast regions. Another national service agency, established in 1976, trains rural workers. Between 1950 and 1993, the economically active female population increased from about 18% of the labor force in 1960 to around 40% by 1999.
The law provides for union representation of all workers except the military, police, and firemen. Major labor union federations include the Workers' Unitary Central, the Workers' General Confederation (CGT), and the Forca Sindical (FS). Union financing depends largely on the compulsory checkoff (contribuição sindical) administered by the government, which applies to nearly all workers, except government and domestic employees, irrespective of union affiliation. It amounts to one day's wages per year from each employed worker. Employees who belong to a union must also pay union dues. The union structure in Brazil was created after 1930 by the Getúlio Vargas regime along the "corporative" lines of the syndical organizations of fascist Italy and Portugal. Employee syndicates are paralleled by employer organizations under federal control. The right to strike was outlawed in 1937 but was restored by the 1946 constitution, subject to strict government regulation. Strikes were further limited in the 1964 constitution to disputes in which employers have already rejected arbitration by competent authorities. The right to strike was fully restored in 1984. The number of strikes has decreased in recent years, with 1,250 strikes recorded in 1996 compared to 84 in the year 2000. Union organizers, especially in rural areas, continue to be violently harassed and even killed.
The many benefits provided by government legislation have the effect of making workers look to government rather than unions for economic advancement. Comprehensive labor legislation is contained in the consolidated labor laws of 1943 and later amendments. The basic working conditions include provisions for a 44-hour workweek, a minimum wage, an annual bonus, paid civil and religious holidays, an annual paid vacation, compensation for overtime work, profit sharing, equal pay for equal work regardless of sex, a family allowance, and severance pay. The minimum wage, adjusted annually, varies from region to region. Overtime and night pay must be at least 20% higher than normal hourly wages. These laws generally apply to industrial and commercial workers and, through the Rural Workers' Law, to agricultural workers, but they exclude government employees and domestic workers, who are covered by other regulations.
Children under 16 are generally forbidden to work by law except in certain apprentice programs. However, this law is not effectively enforced, and official figures in 1999 put the number of children working at slightly under three million. As of 2002, there was a government set minimum wage of $75 per month, which was only one-fifth of the sum necessary to support a family of four. The constitution limits the workweek to 44 hours, although many employees work over the legal limit. Unsafe working conditions are prevalent throughout the country.