Few Dominicans enjoy pleasant or healthy working conditions. In rural areas, small farmers and agricultural laborers endure back-breaking work, the worst of which is often performed by imported Haitian cane-cutters who do the plantation work that most Dominicans refuse to touch. Conditions in most industries are different, but little better, with workers exposed to a dirty and dangerous environment in return for low wages. Only in tourism, within the more modern resort hotels, are conditions more acceptable, though wages are low.
According to the International Labor Organization, the active Dominican workforce in 1997 numbered 3,464,000, with some 500,000 people unemployed, over 14 percent. Of these a large percentage were defined as working in personal services, meaning in many cases domestic service. The second largest category was trade, restaurants, and hotels, with manufacturing coming third. There is also an enormous unregulated informal sector that offers work to women and children who would not find opportunities within formal employment and which is even more exploitative and low-paid than its formal equivalent.
Approximately 200,000 people, or about 8 percent of the workforce, are employed in the free-zone sector. Wages in the free zones are low, averaging no more than US$120 monthly, with supervisors earning perhaps US$350. Trade unions are in theory legal and entitled to operate in workplaces, but many employers routinely fire union activists as "troublemakers." The industrial free zones, in particular, are notoriously hostile to union activity. The union movement is further weakened and fragmented by inter-party competition. The largest union, the National Confederation of Dominican Workers (CNTD), claims fewer than 200,000 members nationally. Public-sector workers such as teachers, doctors, and hospital workers have been especially successful in organizing strikes in recent years.
Supporters of the free zones argue that they bring employment to areas where there are few other opportunities and that women are the main beneficiaries of this work. Women are estimated to comprise about one-third of the formal workforce, but many more are employed informally in private homes, in street vending, and in small-scale sweatshops. The same applies to hundreds of thousands of children, who begin work from ages as low as ten. Women are also particularly in demand in the industrial free zones, where rights are strictly curtailed. There have been allegations that companies hire workers as low-paid apprentices and fire them after their apprenticeship period has ended.