In 1998, the economically active population totaled 6,693,000. The agricultural sector accounted for 35%; 22% worked in industry, and 39% were sales and service workers. Unemployment in 2001 was officially estimated at 7.7%.
The country has a strong trade union tradition, and the constitutional right to form unions is respected by the government. Approximately 25% of the nationwide labor force are union members, with over 70% of agricultural workers unionized as well. The largest trade union federations are the Ceylon Workers' Congress, the National Workers' Union, the Democratic Workers' Congress, and the Ceylon Federation of Labor. With the exception of essential workers, employees have the right to strike. It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against those who engage in union activity. Collective bargaining is widely practiced.
Thousands of Sri Lankan workers are employed abroad, mostly in Sa'udi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman; many of them housemaids and nannies valued for their literacy and English language skills.
There is no national minimum wage, but there are minimum wages set in individual sectors and industries. The average such wage was $33.52 per month in industry, commerce, and the service sector, and $1.42 per day in agriculture as of 2001. It was estimated that 16,500 children younger than the minimum legal age of 14 were employed full-time, with many thousands more employed in domestic service. The legal workweek is set at 45 hours.