Brunei suffers a serious shortage of both skilled and unskilled labor and has to recruit large numbers of these from abroad. It was estimated in 1997 that 60,000 out of the total workforce of 130,000 were foreigners. Many unskilled and manual workers from neighboring Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Bangladesh work mainly in the construction industry. The government is concerned that too large a number of foreigners in the country might disrupt Brunei's society and thus only issues work permits for short periods. Despite the need for foreign workers, there are still unemployed Bruneians, since they are reluctant to accept manual work (e.g. in the construction sector) and are not qualified to fill other vacancies. The unemployment rate in 2000 was 5 percent.
Brunei's dependence upon foreign labor stems from a cultural predisposition for public sector employment. Most Brunei Malays prefer to work in well-paid government jobs or for large companies such as Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP), Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA), and the banks. In the private sector, which is subject to chronic labor shortage in both professional and unskilled fields, Chinese and other foreign nationals make up the bulk of the workforce.
Women's participation in the labor force has increased significantly from 29.5 percent in 1986 to 52.3 percent in 1999, partly offsetting the labor shortage. Brunei law protects women and children. Women under age 18 are not allowed to work at night or on offshore oil platforms, and the employment of children below the age of 16 is prohibited. The government has continued to set up a number of technical and vocational training institutions to improve the abilities of job seekers. Occupational health and safety standards apply, but enforcement is lax in the unskilled labor sectors, especially where foreign laborers work.
Trade unions in Brunei are legal but must be registered. Conditions, however, are not conducive to the development of trade unions: the cultural tradition favors consensus over confrontation and workers have little interest in participating. There are only 3 trade unions, all in the oil sector, and they are not particularly active.