As of 1995, about 80% of the population were subsistence farmers while handicrafts, porterage, trade, military service, industry, and government work engaged the remainder. As of 1998, the labor force was estimated to number about 11 million. In 2002, the vast majority, approximately 81% of the workforce, was engaged in agriculture. Most agriculturists are peasant farmers, and there are many wage laborers, but only in the peak seasons. The service sector provides work for 16% of the labor force, and industry accounts for the remaining 3%. There is a severe lack of skilled labor. Among some tribes, women do most of the farm work, while in others, especially among strict Hindus, they do no farming at all. Many occupations are effectively restricted to certain castes, although the practice has been declared illegal. In 2001, the unemployment rate was 47%.
Unions are allowed to organize and strike. The three largest trade unions are associated with political parties, but the government does not restrict union activity. However, the right of a union to strike is limited to nonessential services. About 20% of the workforce is covered by collective bargaining agreements.
Minimum wage rates and working conditions in the small industrial sector are set by the Nepal Factories and Factory Workers' Act of 1959, as amended. In 2002, the minimum wage was $20 per month for unskilled, $21 for semiskilled, and $25 for skilled workers in the organized industrial sector. Wages can be as low as 50% of the minimum in the informal economy and the agricultural sector. The law establishes a minimum employment age of 16 years in industry and 14 years in agriculture.