Of the roughly 66,000 strong Antillean workforce as many as 11,000 are unemployed, a result of the economy's steady slowdown since the 1980s. In 1995 the unemployment rate was posted at 13.1 percent; by 1998 deepening economic difficulties had pushed it to 16.7 percent. And plans to rein in government spending by cutting back the civil service will further add to the problem. Relations between the labor movement and the government have consequently become more tense as the level of social welfare is decreased and insecurity in the workforce mounts.
But conditions on the islands vary markedly. Curaçao is the most industrialized of the islands and home to much of the federation's wealth, but it has also suffered some of its most serious problems. The oil boom in the mid-20th century swelled Curaçao's population from around 33,000 in 1915 to 145,000 in 1975 and transformed the island. But the contraction of the industry in the 1980s, combined with the introduction of less labor-intensive production techniques, has created a serious labor surplus. Economic restructuring, a condition of continued Dutch support, has tended to make the situation—at least for the short-term—even worse. The government is committed to cutting the civil service by 30 percent, while staff losses at ALM are also expected to run to 30 percent. The result is a considerable degree of social stress, accompanied by a widening disparity between those who have been able to benefit from economic deregulation and those who have suffered (such as the unemployed). Emigration has diffused some of the tension, but this is far from being an adequate long-term solution—either for the Antillean economy or for those Antillean immigrants to the Netherlands, many of whom face considerable problems of adaptation and integration. Emigration too is increasingly coming from the Netherlands Antilles' educated middle classes, creating a serious skills shortage at precisely the time when the country is looking to develop new industries and markets.
Sint Maarten's situation is somewhat different. In the space of 30 years tourism development turned this once sparsely populated and sleepy island into a major tourist hub and a source of jobs for Antilleans from throughout the Caribbean. But many of these workers come illegally, forming a growing under-class. The distribution of tourism's proceeds has also tended to be skewed, going mostly to those who own the shops, restaurants, and guesthouses, at the expense of those who work in them. Similar divisions are also developing on Bonaire and Saba, where tourism investment has also been heavy. Sint Eustatius, where tourism remains in its infancy, preserves the atmosphere of the "old" Antilles. But as the poorest of the islands, it is dependent for its income on remittances from the Dutch government and money sent home by former residents forced to leave to find work.
Aruba's problems are less pressing, but here too economic adjustments—a new health insurance program, government divestment, and the failure of Air Aruba—threaten job security and have caused heated debate. Aruba's more robust economy has kept unemployment in its 41,500 strong workforce to a minimum, often requiring it to import labor to meet local demand. But with a population density of 1,142 people per square mile, the influx of foreign workers, combined with poor home mortgage financing availability, has produced a serious housing shortage, especially for those in lower income groups. Addressing this problem is a government priority.
The labor forces of both countries tend to be well educated, as well as multi-lingual. The Antillean government's investment in education is substantial—16 percent of its annual budget in 1994—and has given the Netherlands Antilles a high literacy rate of around 98 percent. The islands also have their own university, an adjunct branch of the University of the West Indies, located in Curaçao. But unemployment has tended to discourage higher education, resulting in poor school retention rates at the secondary and tertiary levels. This situation combined with emigration have contributed to the islands' growing skills deficit. Aruba's investment in education has also been extensive (16.9 percent of the GDP in 1994), with similar results (97 percent literacy). In 1988 the University of Aruba law school was founded; in 1993 courses on finance and economics were added.