According to the 1970 census, the economically active population of Argentina was 9,011,450; by 1999, it was estimated at over 14,000,000. According to 1996 estimates, the labor force was divided as follows: 18.5% in manufacturing, 2.2% in agriculture and mining, 18.1% in commerce, 10.3% in transport and communications, 9.5% in public administration and defense, and the remainder in other sectors. Unemployment began to rise again in the 1970s, exceeding 7% by 1972; for the rest of the decade, however, Argentina's unemployment rate was among the lowest in Latin America (2.2% in 1978). In the wake of the 1981 recession, unemployment and underemployment rose to about 14%. The unemployment rate was up to 25% by 2001.
Organized labor has probably had a greater effect on the modern history of Argentina than any other group. Before Perón, unions were poorly organized, few in number, and lacking in political power. Perón used the labor movement as his chief vehicle in achieving and holding dictatorial power. He built the General Confederation of Labor (Confederación General del Trabajo—CGT) from a disjointed membership of about 250,000 into a highly centralized organization of six million workers encompassing every aspect of the Argentine economy. With strong backing from the government, union organization proceeded at a spectacular rate, giving Perón control over landowners and management. In return for their solid support, labor unions won tremendous benefits in the form of higher wages and improved working conditions. These advances, however, were built on a political rather than a sound economic foundation, and the fortunes of the CGT waxed and waned with those of Perón and his followers. In 2002, an estimated 35% of the workforce belonged to a union.
Following the 1966 coup, Gen. Onganía attempted to reach an understanding with various factions of the CGT, including the Perónists. Early in 1970, Onganía was successful in negotiating a series of agreements with confederation leaders, but inflationary pressures created a growing dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the government. When Gen. Levingston assumed office in mid-1970, he promised the CGT a stronger voice in labor affairs. The CGT regained much of its former influence under the Cámpora and two Perón governments, pushing for numerous inflationary wage increases. In 1973, an estimated four million workers were organized into 500 trade unions, 45 federations, and three confederations. The CGT, composed of 94 affiliated organizations, had an estimated membership of 2.5 million. All trade union activity was banned after the March 1976 coup, but the ban was rescinded in 1981, and the right to belong to a union was reestablished in September 1982. In December 1982, the unions organized a one-day general strike to protest inflation and human rights abuses, with about 90% of all workers participating.
Shortly after taking office in 1983, the Alfonsín administration attempted to legislate democratic practices into the labor movement. While the bill was defeated in the Senate, and the government was forced to water it down, elections were held in most unions in 1984, and a reform movement, known as the Committee of 25, began in the CGT. In 1987, another pragmatic group of reformist union leaders, the Group of 15, called for negotiations rather than the one-day general strikes that the CGT's traditional leadership had been using to bring pressure on the government. The CGT split into two factions in 1989, over the question of whether to support Menem's economic policies. In March 1992, having seen their influence and power diminish, the CGT was reunified.
The national minimum wage is set at $200 per month which does not provide a living wage for a family. However, most workers earn considerably more. The average salary in the formal sector is around $550 per month. The legal workweek is 48-hours, with a maximum of eight hours a day. Overtime rates are ordinarily determined through collective bargaining. Children under the age of 15 are legally prohibited from full-time work, as they are required to attend school. However, child labor continues to be a problem. There are extensive occupational and health and safety laws but they are not fully enforced because the government has inadequate resources. Cases of very poor labor conditions are known to exist in plants employing illegal aliens.