Papua New Guinea has a total workforce of 1.941 million, and the unemployment rate has fluctuated between 3 and 10 percent since the 1980s. The development of new sectors in the Papua New Guinea economy has shaped the characteristics of employment. Before 1950, plantations provided almost the sole source of employment for both women and men, with only a fraction of the workforce employed formally. Little changed until after World War II, when both a legal minimum wage was set and the transition to a formal cash wage system was under way. By the 1950s Papua New Guineans were extensively employed in all areas of the country's economy. Women's participation in the formal employment sector has remained very small, with an estimated 14 percent of wage employment in 1980. Women and unskilled men are still subject to difficulties in job advancement. Regional differences in employment are extreme. Most formal employment is in the urban centers, especially Port Moresby.
Working conditions vary accordingly. The plantations have traditionally required a young workforce, owing to the early retirement of plantation employees, whose work is hard and largely unregulated. In contrast, those sectors such as mining, which have been driven by the infrastructure created by international corporations, provide considerable salaries (and benefits to land owners). However, the value of mineral exports in relation to agricultural subsistence or commodity exports means that the proportion of those involved in the mining sector remains very small in comparison. Papua New Guinea also has a substantial informal sector , consisting of small businesses that do not typically pay taxes or keep accounting records. Such businesses receive little support from the government, even though they may be in great need of loans to help start and expand their activities. Life for these small businesses is made even more difficult by laws that require them to, for example, obtain licenses or record their profits.