In 1998, Singapore's labor force was 1.932 million people, with the unemployment rate about 3.2 percent, or 61,700 people. Over the last 3 decades of the 20th century, unemployment has never been high, thanks to the country's robust economic performance across almost all sectors of the economy. Singapore's economy experienced 2 difficult years in 1997 and 1998, when unemployment rose, but since the beginning of economic recovery in 1999 and 2000 there has been strong demand in the labor market. The Employment Act established a 44-hour working week, although there is no official minimum wage or unemployment compensation.
Singapore's economy demands a highly trained and flexible workforce. The government strongly promotes the acquisition of different skills, supporting several higher education centers, and vocational and technical institutes. Facing shortages in the workforce, the government encourages women to work by providing different initiatives and support for working mothers. Women made up about 40 percent of the workforce in 1999. Due to the nature of the labor market and the nation's growing prosperity, there is no child labor problem. The law prohibits employment of children under age 12. Due to labor shortages, there is a growing number of foreign workers in Singapore, unskilled and concentrated in the service and construction sectors.
The activities of trade unions are allowed in the country within the framework of the Societies Act, labor laws, and other regulations. According to the U.S. State Department, in the late 1990s there were 255,020 union members, organized into 83 unions. Most of them are affiliated with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), which is closely associated with the ruling People's Action Party. Strikes, slow-downs, and other workers' protests are rare in Singapore. Collective bargaining is common in management-labor relations, but most disagreements are solved through informal consultations and, in disputed cases, through the Industrial Arbitration Court.
The rise of the "new economy" caused a surge in demand for information technology (IT) workers. It is expected that, with annual growth of 10 percent in the IT sector, manpower in this area will need to more than double from 95,000 in 2000 to 220,000 in 2008. The government intends to develop the existing workforce rather than rely on immigration for the acquisition of skilled personnel in the sector. To facilitate retraining, in April 2000 the Ministry of Manpower and the Infocomm Development Authority jointly launched the Strategic Manpower Conversion Program, emphasizing information technologies and "technopreneurship."