Iraq's labor force has increased steadily since the 1970s, reaching over 6 million workers in 1998. No official statistics are available for the unemployment rate in the country, but it is widely believed that the unemployment rate has increased dramatically as a result of the war and the subsequent sanctions. Iraq suffered labor shortages in the 1980s as result of the conscription of thousands of Iraqi men in the military. Declining economic conditions forced thousands of foreign workers who migrated to Iraq for work opportunities during the war to leave after the war ended. This problem was further aggravated by the exodus of thousands of Iraqi professionals at the outset of the Gulf War. The majority of the labor force (67 percent) is concentrated in the services sector, which is dominated by the military, in comparison to only 14 percent in the agricultural sector and 19 percent in the industrial sector.
Iraq's trade unions were legalized in 1936, and although more than a dozen are in existence today, the labor movement has been largely ineffective due to the domination of the government and Ba'ath Party. In 1987, the government established the Iraqi General Federation of Trade Unions (IGFTU) as the sole legal trade federation, which is used to promote the principles and policies of the Ba'ath party among union members. Iraqi employees work a 6-day, 48-hour week, but working hours in the public sector are set by the head of each ministry. Child labor is prohibited, although children under the age of 14 can work in the agricultural sector and are encouraged to help support their families.
Although labor laws protecting the right of workers have been in place since 1958 and subsequently amended in 1964, working conditions in Iraq are not ideal. Workers do not enjoy the right to strike, as mandated by the 1987 Labor Law; do not have the right to bargain collectively; and are often arbitrarily moved from their positions for political considerations. Salaries in the public sector are set by the government, but no information is available on minimum wages. Declining economic conditions in the 1990s have forced many government employees to take second and third jobs to support themselves.
Since the 1970s, the ruling Ba'ath party has encouraged the participation of women in the labor force and much effort was exerted to improve their level of education. The percentage of women in the labor force has, however, remained rather steady in the 2 decades between 1970 and 1990, hovering at around 16.8 percent. According to World Bank figures, Iraqi women's participation in the labor force has risen consistently since the 1990/91 Gulf War, jumping from 16.6 percent in 1991 to a high of 19 percent in 1998. This increase can be best explained in terms of the harsh economic conditions that Iraqis have had to endure as a result of the war, which have forced many women to seek employment opportunities outside their homes to earn a living.