In the last years of the 1990s the Jamaican labor force has been shrinking, to an estimated 1,120,000 workers in 1999. The official unemployment rate for 1999 was 15.7 percent, down 1 percent from the year before. But the declining unemployment rate does not necessarily mean that opportunities for workers are increasing. Many of those leaving the workforce to retire are older, more highly skilled workers, while those entering the workforce are younger and unskilled. Job training and secondary education in Jamaica are generally poor, thus much of the younger workforce cannot expect high-paying jobs. Unemployment remains particularly high among women and younger workers.
Before there were even political parties in Jamaica there was a labor union: the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, formed in 1938 to protect the rights of Jamaican workers. In the 1990s the U.S. State Department estimated union membership in Jamaica's 70 labor unions at around 20 percent of the employed workforce. The government of Jamaica supports workers' rights conventions promoted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and has set conditions governing industrial and human relations, established minimum wage standards, and protected low-wage workers from paying income tax. The 40-hour work week is the standard, and Jamaica has no history of child labor problems. In 1999, the government-mandated minimum wage increased to J$1,200 a week, and no income tax was required on wages lower than J$100,464 a year. In addition, the government provides social security benefits that include a retirement pension, pay for on-the-job injuries, food stamps, rehabilitation, and training. These latter benefits are considered sub-standard, however, and represent a tiny portion of federal spending.
Despite the protections offered by unions and government regulations, conditions for workers in Jamaica are not ideal. First, labor actions—strikes, slow downs, and protests—have frequently disturbed work life; in 1996 there were a total of 195 such disputes, up 7.7 percent from 1995. Second, the educational and training system in Jamaica is of such low quality that few workers have the skills to secure higher paying skilled jobs. (In 1998 adult illiteracy rates stood at 18 percent for men and 10 percent for women, significantly higher than elsewhere in the Caribbean.) Thus many workers seek earnings in the informal sector, which includes jobs as street vendors but also in the illegal drug trade. Finally, the close connection between labor unions and political parties has meant that union jobs are often granted as political favors, and that fights for jobs and votes have often turned violent. Industrial and political violence has been a recurring feature in Jamaican life since the 1970s and has helped decrease the attraction of Jamaica for those looking to locate factories in the country.