The labor force in 2001 totaled 17.6 million persons, with 28% of the workers engaged in agriculture, 22% in industry, and 50% in the service sectors. In 2002, the estimated unemployment rate was 17%, with considerable underemployment as well.
The Trade Union Act of 1949 consolidated the existing unions into the Central Council of Labor Unions. Under labor legislation enacted during the first three decades of Communist rule, collective agreements were concluded yearly on such matters as production norms, socialist competition, and labor discipline, but wages, hours, pensions, sick leave, and vacations were established by law. After 1956, arbitration commissions, elected by workers' councils, were entrusted with the settling of labor disputes. Also established in 1956 were labor inspectors, attached to the provincial councils of the unions, to check for violations of labor laws by management.
A pivotal chapter in Polish labor history began in August 1980, when, after a series of strikes in Gdansk and elsewhere (including Silesia, where most of the coal mines were closed), the government authorized the formation of independent labor unions. On 5 September, a new national labor movement, called Solidarity, was born. Solidarity achieved legal status in October 1980—but only on condition that it recognize the "leading role" of the PZPR—and within a short time claimed a membership of almost 10 million. The goals of Solidarity included a five-day workweek, worker self-management, an easing of censorship, and other economic and political reforms. In May 1981, Rural Solidarity, a labor union of independent farmers, won legal recognition. At the first national congress of Solidarity, held in September and October 1981, Lech Walesa was elected national chairman. Walesa and other Solidarity leaders were detained in December 1981, when martial law was imposed. All existing labor organizations were outlawed on 8 October 1982. New unions, authorized at that time and formally constituted in January 1983, were to be confined to individual factories or workplaces and, although theoretically independent, were in fact closely supervised by the government. The rights to strike and to leave one's job were severely limited, and national coordination of individual unions was prohibited. In February 1986, the government issued a decree permitting an extension of the workweek to 46 hours (six days), thus rescinding one of the few remaining concessions won by Solidarity. In 1988, strikes resumed, as a protest to the government's attempt to eliminate food subsidies. The Solidarity movement was permitted to resume at the demand of the workers. The government then resigned, and Solidarity earnestly participated in the negotiations with the interim Council of Ministers on economic and constitutional reforms. In 1989, Solidarity was legalized once again. Unions have the right to strike and bargain collectively, although union officials report that workers in the private sector are encouraged not to join unions by their employers and workers organizing unions often face discrimination. In 2000 the official number of unions was 360, with members representing only 7% of the workforce.
The labor code prohibits employment for children under the age of 15. There are strict rules governing the work standards for those between 15 and 18 years old, however these are not regularly enforced. The minimum wage in state-owned enterprises was $180 per month in 2002, although large number of workers earn less than the minimum wage. The legal standard workweek is 42 hours with one 24-hour rest period. The labor code defines occupational safety and health standards but they are not consistently enforced.