The labor force comprised around 500,000 people in 1997, of which 41 percent were female and 20 percent were aged 10-14 (34 percent in 1980). The labor force grew at 2.4 percent a year between 1980 and 1997. Around 16,500 people enter the labor market each year. A high proportion of the workforce remains illiterate and unskilled. Agriculture provides employment for nearly half the workforce. Excluding subsistence farmers, the government is the biggest employer, accounting for over 70,000 jobs (18 percent of the workforce). There were 8,000 employed in the armed forces in 1995 (1.3 percent of the labor force).
In the colonial period a stream of African migrant workers came from the rural areas of Namibia and nearby countries such as Angola, Botswana, and Zambia. The development of the early mines and ranches depended on these sources of cheap labor. In the diamond and uranium mines, where profits have been high and the wage bill a small proportion of costs, the situation has changed, and these enterprises now pay the highest wages in the country. Elsewhere, particularly on the ranches, wages remain extremely low.
Unemployment figures have little significance in Namibia. There are very few with no work at all. Estimates in 1977 indicated that those who are unemployed or underemployed make up between 30 percent to 40 percent of the workforce, but this is almost all underemployment. There is no unemployment benefit, and those who do not work rely on support from charities or their families. Many people would like a modern sector job, but eke out an existence on family farms or in casual informal sector activities (such as hawking , portering, and scavenging) in the urban areas.