By 1997, the total labor force in Portugal was approximately 5 million. Although unemployment still averaged about 4 percent (one of the lowest in the EU), many considered Portugal to have almost achieved full employment and that there was little opportunity left for redirecting underemployed workers from agriculture to more productive sectors. The proportion of working women was already higher than in most other EU countries. Since the late 1980s, powerful syndicates (labor unions) controlled more than 55 percent of the labor force. The labor market is accordingly tight and many industries are suffering from a labor shortage.
According to the available data from the third quarter of 2000, 30,000 new jobs were created in Portugal during that period, and the rate of employment growth accelerated to 1.8 percent. New job creation was boosted mainly through the traditionally unstable construction sector, where employment rose by 11.5 percent, while service sector jobs increased by only 2.1 percent, and industrial employment fell by 3.3 percent. Growth in the number of employees reached 2.6 percent, of which fixed-term contract employees were responsible for 1 percent and permanent contracts for 0.7 percent. The tightness of the labor market was somewhat lessened by a rise in the number of persons who applied for a job for the first time. Nevertheless, the economy continued to operate in conditions of near full employment. Portugal's participation rate still remains well below the EU average, increasing the heavy strain on overburdened social security and health-care systems.
Although Portugal is ruled by a socialist government and enjoys friendly relations between the government and the unions, labor disputes are often quite passionate. In May 2000, after a series of nationwide railroad strikes, the government ordered 1,700 state-employed train operators back to work, claiming their actions were harming the economy and the people's lives. Legislation provides grounds for such an order as a rarely used emergency measure if key public services are at risk. The loss-making national railroad company, Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses, is Portugal's only train service provider. Once the period covered by the order expired, however, train operators decided to resume their action.
Earlier in 2000, the socialist government was shaken by the worst wave of public sector protests since it took office in 1995, when a general strike by civil service and transport unions hit services in Portugal. Schools, health centers, buses, and the Lisbon Metro were affected by the stoppages. The main communist and socialist-led union federations called upon labor opposition to push for higher wages. The strike was the latest in a series of events that had been gathering momentum since annual wage talks were aborted in March 2000, and the government fixed a 2.5 percent wage increase for public administration workers. When the government later announced an average increase of more than 11 percent in fuel prices, unions feared that real wage increases would erode. Antonio Guterres, the prime minister, warned that public sector wage increases had to be kept moderate to prevent higher inflation that could threaten Portugal's compliance with the EMU stability pact.
The dire economic forecasts in early 2001 suggest that hidden wage pressure may be still growing. Public-sector unions have demanded wage increases between 4.5 percent and 6 percent in 2001, expressing their serious concern about the fact that the government may miss the inflation target (on which wage negotiations are based) for the third consecutive year. The government, which has resisted these pressures, is still expected to agree upon an average pay raise in the public sector of about 3.7 percent for 2001 (up from 2.5 percent in 2000), which, on the other hand, may over-stretch the already very fragile public finances and fuel higher inflation.
Furthermore, with labor market conditions remaining very tight, there is a risk of even greater pressure for wage increases on the private-sector, raising the threat that even higher inflation could become inevitable. The traditional loyalty between the government and the trade union federation could, in the event that this happens, come under additional strain. Good labor relations, nonetheless, will most likely continue to be the norm. On the other hand, improvements in the quality of the work-force through education and training, which have been generously funded through EU programs, will be conducive to wage growth.