The Labor Force
Figure 6. Employment by Sector, 1987
Source: Based on information from United States, Department of
State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Background Notes, El
Salvador, Washington, November 1987, 1.
The Salvadoran labor force has been traditionally
characterized as industrious, motivated, and reliable. Of new
entrants to the labor force in 1986, it was estimated that 4
percent possessed executive, technical, or professional skills.
Some 25 percent of all job seekers were classified as semiskilled , while 71 percent were unskilled laborers. The labor
force was young, reflecting the demographic profile of the
population; in 1985 more than 52 percent of workers were less
than thirty years of age (see
table 5, Appendix). The labor force
remained largely agrarian and rural in the late 1980s
Labor suffered because of a variety of economic and
institutional circumstances: real wages declined, unemployment
rose, and efforts to unify the fragmented labor movement were
thwarted by the failure of President Duarte to implement promised
labor reforms and by the polarization of union leadership
(see Interest Groups
, ch. 4). The negative trend for labor continued
in 1987. The legal real minimum wage fell by 28 percent, and
average real private sector and public sector wages dropped by
13.3 percent. Between 1983 and 1987, real wages declined by about
The Salvadoran Constitution details the right to organize
unions and associations, but the establishment of "closed shops"
(enterprises employing only union workers) was forbidden by law.
The law also required the use of collective bargaining,
conciliation, and arbitration before a strike could be called.
In 1986 there were approximately 150 recognized unions,
employee associations, and peasant organizations, which
represented 15 percent of the total work force. Although union
membership stabilized in the 1980s, union activism fluctuated
with prevailing economic and political conditions. For example,
in 1982, while membership remained fairly constant in relation to
past years, the number of workers involved in strikes fell from
13,904 in 1981 to just 373. In 1984 the number jumped to 26,111.
In 1987 the labor movement vocalized its frustrations as
economic conditions stagnated and the civil conflict dragged on.
Such frustrations were exacerbated by the perception that Duarte
failed to implement the labor reforms he had promised during the
1984 presidential campaign. Labor leaders protested Duarte's
failure to fulfill his end of the "social pact" after labor had
put its weight behind him in exchange for pledges of increased
inclusion of union members in the government and greater
responsiveness to labor and peasant issues.
Between 1978 and 1984, private employment fell from 147,000
to 122,000, a 17 percent decline. Employment in the construction
industry suffered the most during this period, declining almost
(see fig. ).
Employment opportunities in 1987
continued the downward trend that began with the country's civil
conflict. Although no official unemployment rates were available
for 1986 or 1987, it is likely that counterbalancing forces
stabilized the rate during these two years at the 1985 level, or
33 percent. First, the civil conflict continued to displace many
workers and to limit employment growth. Second, the agricultural
sector grew by 3.1 percent, recouping losses experienced in 1986.
Finally, an estimated 2.5 percent economic growth rate in 1987
was insufficient to reduce the unemployment rate.
The impact of El Salvador's civil conflict was demonstrated
in the evolution of the unemployment rate between 1978 and 1985.
Over this period, the rate rose almost tenfold, from 3.1 percent
to 33 percent. Labor's situation would have been even more grave
without the emigration of an estimated 500,000 Salvadorans to the
United States between 1978 and 1985. Remittances from workers
abroad totaled US$350 million officially in 1987, although some
estimates were as high as US$1 billion or more.
Data as of November 1988