In 1946 the Belizean labor force numbered approximately 20,100 economically active individuals. This pool expanded to 27,000 in 1960, to 33,000 in 1970, and to 46,000 in 1980. By 1990 the active labor force had increased to more than 60,000. Most startling was the increase in female participation. Although women made up only 18 percent of the labor force in 1960, they accounted for one-third in 1991, when 44.5 percent of working-age women were actually economically active, as opposed to only 20.6 percent in 1960. The reason for this relatively high level of female participation was most likely the acute shortage of labor in a country where some 50 percent of the population was aged fifteen and under and also that young women typically are employed in the new low-wage sectors, such as the garment assembly industry.
The labor shortage was eased by the employment of large numbers of migrant workers from Central America. However, relatively high wage rates have been necessary to attract these workers, which, in turn, make Belize a high-cost producer by developing countries' standards. The influx of large numbers of immigrants per year, which has changed the ethnic composition of the population, has also been a source of social tension.
Although Belize has experienced labor shortages, it has also reported relatively high levels of unemployment--around 15 percent in the early 1990s. However, these figures were less a manifestation of job shortages than an indication of labor immobility. Also, many Belizeans chose to be unemployed, because they received remittance payments from family abroad. For instance, between 30,000 and 100,000 Belizeans were estimated to reside in the United States.
The members of five major unions accounted for about 15 percent of the labor force. In 1991 more than 1,000 teachers belonged to the Belize National Teachers' Union; the Public Service Union consisted of about the same number of public workers. The largest union outside the public sector was the Christian Workers' Union, with more than 2,000 members. The General Workers' Union was broadbased and affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The Democratic Independent Union counted more than 1,200 members in 1991. The National Trades Union Congress of Belize served as an umbrella group for all unions. None of the unions was associated with a political party.
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