In 1999, the official estimate of the total economically active population was 1.7 million. In that year, the labor force was distributed as follows: services, 43%; agriculture, 42%; and industry, 15%. However, according to some estimates, more than 50% of the workforce remains unemployed or underemployed. Officially, unemployment was at 23% in 2001.
Nicaragua became a member of the ILO in 1919, withdrew in 1938, and rejoined in 1957. The former labor code, effective January 1945, was patterned on Mexican labor legislation. In establishing and protecting the rights of workers, emphasis was placed on law rather than collective bargaining. A new code, effective as of 1996, allows all public and private sector employees to form and join unions and legally recognizes cooperatives, as well as the right to strike. However, administrative requirements make it difficult for a union to engage in a legal strike. As of 2001, approximately 15% of the labor force was organized.
Children may not work until the age of 14 but this regulation is not effectively enforced and many children work in agriculture and in cities as urban street-peddlers. The maximum legal workweek is 48 hours, with one day of rest per week. The minimum wage varies from sector to sector throughout the formal economy. In 2001, the monthly minimum wage was $47 in agriculture, $118 in construction, and $75 in manufacturing. This does not provide a family with a decent standard of living. The legal workweek is set at 48 hours with one day of rest. The labor code attempts to bring work conditions up to the international standard.