The proportion of working Brazilians with employment contracts increased from 45.3 percent in 2001 to 56 percent last year, the IBGE statistics agency said Wednesday.

Even so, Latin America's largest economy still has 44.2 million informal workers, the IBGE said in its Synthesis of Social Indicators report.

The agency said the shift toward formal employment can be attributed to periods of strong economic growth that boosted incomes and job creation.

Informal work is now mainly the preserve of people over 60 and under 24, according to the report

Nearly 72 percent of working people 60 and up are in the informal sector, the IBGE said, many of them pensioners who want to remain active or supplement their incomes.

Workers' inflation-adjusted earnings increased 16.5 percent in the last decade, the report said, while working women enjoyed gains of 22.3 percent.

At the same time, women's pay remained only 73.3 percent of men's and Afro-Brazilians earned 40 percent less than their white compatriots.

Income disparity, long one of Brazil's most glaring social problems, eased somewhat, but remains pronounced, the IBGE found.

The richest 20 percent's share of national income fell from 63.7 percent in 2001 to 57.7 percent last year. The portion of the poorest 20 percent of Brazilians climbed from 2.6 percent to 3.5 percent. EFE