About 240,000 people, or about 55 percent of the adult population (85 percent of adult men and 25 percent of adult women), were economically active in Guyana as of 1990. Official statistics indicated that 16 percent of the economically active persons were unemployed in 1980. In 1985 the government reported that no reliable unemployment estimate was available. Unemployment in 1990 was estimated at between 12 percent and 15 percent. In the mid1980s , an estimated 30 percent of employed people worked in agriculture, 20 percent in mining and manufacturing, and 50 percent in construction, services, and administration. As with other economic statistics in Guyana, these figures did not include the substantial number of people working in the parallel economy.
The United States Department of State estimated in 1990 that 25 percent of Guyana's work force was unionized. Organized labor in Guyana was closely tied to the major national political parties. In 1990, the largest labor organization, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), comprised eighteen unions, most of which were affiliated with the ruling People's National Congress (PNC) party. President Hoyte was honorary president of the oldest TUC member, the Guyana Labour Union (GLU). British Guiana's best known labor leader, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, started the GLU in 1917 (as the British Guiana Labour Union) when he organized dockworkers. Another important labor organization was the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), which represented 14,000 sugar workers. The predominantly Indo-Guyanese GAWU was associated with the opposition People's Progressive Party (PPP). Intraparty divisions were reflected in labor organizations: in 1988 seven unions left the TUC in protest at PNC electioneering tactics and formed the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG).
Labor unions played an important role in the anticolonial movement in the 1960s and in the nationalization of foreign companies in the 1970s. But the close ties between the TUC unions and the governing PNC party did not guarantee that workers' interests were always advanced. In 1988 the Guyanese National Assembly adopted a constitutional amendment under which government no longer had to consult with trade unions on labor and social legislation. According to the government, this move was an essential step toward dismantling the statist economy. As part of the reform program, the government effectively cut workers' purchasing power by repeatedly devaluing the Guyanese currency. Wage increases did not keep pace with the devaluations. Prolonged strikes followed, leading to production losses in all major sectors. During wage negotiations in 1990, the unions were again dissatisfied when President Hoyte announced across-the-board pay increases that were significantly lower than what the unions had requested. Economic stabilization was taking precedence over union demands.
Workers in Guyana received overtime pay when they worked in excess of an eight-hour day or a forty-hour week. But in 1990, about 40 percent of the country's workers were in minimum-wage jobs, earning the equivalent of US$0.5 per day (at December 1990 exchange rates). These low wages, often not enough to even cover the costs of commuting to work, helped explain the high rate of emigration. The government barred children under age fourteen from working, but the United States Department of State reported in 1990 that younger children did work, often selling candy, cigarettes, and other items along roads.
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