In 2000, Chile's labor force numbered 5.9 million workers. Of the employed workforce in 1997, 59% was engaged in service occupations, 14% in agriculture, and 27% in the industrial sector. Unemployment and underemployment have plagued successive governments during recent decades, reaching nearly 22% (unofficially) by the end of 1990. It was officially 5.9% in 1994 but had risen to 10.1% by 2001.
Chile's unions, dating from the turn of the century, developed slowly until the 1930s, at which time labor established itself as a political force. Communists, who had played an important role in Chilean labor affairs, were forbidden by law to hold union offices in 1948. Although they were not legally permitted to reenter the labor movement until 1958, they remained a strong influence. In 1953, the government, fearing Communist influence in the unions, formed a confederation of labor unions. About 90% of Chilean unions joined this confederation, the Central Union of Chilean Workers (Central Única de Trabajadores de Chile—CUTCH). By the late 1960s, however, Socialists and Communists had risen to the highest offices in CUTCH and formed a key base of support for Allende's election in 1970. Union membership dropped from about 30% of the labor force in 1975 to about 10% in 2002, or approximately 580,000. Mining has been the most highly organized sector. Only in recent decades were efforts made to organize agricultural workers. Strikes are permitted in the private sector, and employers must pay severance benefits to striking workers and show cause for dismissal.
The law sets the minimum wage and it is adjusted annually. As of June 2002, it was set at $157 per month. The minimum wage is designed as a starting wage for an unskilled single worker and does not provide a decent standard of living for a family. There is a minimum work age of 15, provided that the child has the express permission of his or her parents. The law is complied with in the formal economy but is often not enforced in the informal economy. The legal workweek is 48 hours and 10 hours per day with limited exceptions. There are also occupational safety and health standards. The government is putting expanded resources into enforcement of these measures and compliance is increasing.