BREAKING THE YOKE: Are Liberia and Ethiopia's governmental responses effectively combating forced labor trafficking among their youth and women?
By: Ian L. Courts, J.D.
“And that day it shall come to pass, that [their] burden shall be taken off their shoulder, and his yoke from off thy neck, and the yoke shall be destroyed.” (Isaiah 10:27). I open this discussion with a quote from the Prophet Isaiah concerning freedom for exiled Israelis during the time of the Assyrian captivity of ancient Israelites. This quote is salient to my discussion because, for many reasons, (one) Ethiopia and Liberia share a largely Christian understanding, and (two) many within these countries would identify with this quote. Additionally, as a Black American who takes seriously my responsibility to further Black Thought and enrichen Black scholarship, my people largely identify with Judeo-Christian themes and the plight of our fellowmen in the African diaspora. Forced labor is one of the most pressing issues facing Africa and has been used as a tool of exploitation and power by the Western world toward members of the Diaspora but has also increasingly become entrenched in the domestic affairs and activities of internal actors within the continent. Moreover, this discussion aims to highlight the labor trafficking of women and children in Liberia and Ethiopia, specifically forced labor and child forced labor, while also advocating for a more robust governmental response through legislation and corporate-governmental cooperation. To “break the yoke” of labor trafficking off the neck of the people, Liberia and Ethiopia must strengthen, innovate, and expand their current anti-labor trafficking measures.
Section I: Defining the Problem: What is Forced Labor?
Forced labor is one of the modern era's most pervasive human trafficking crimes. Forced labor is generally defined as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” Based on this definition, it can be deduced that labor trafficking is the exploitation and extraction of labor from a person without their voluntary consent with the threat of harm. The African Union has defined forced labor as “a person is coerced to work involuntarily. Coercion can take different forms, for example, the use of violence or intimidation or more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” Additionally, Liberia, one of our focus countries, constitutionally prohibits forced labor “[n]o person shall be held in slavery or forced labor within the Republic, nor shall any citizen of Liberia nor any person resident therein deal in slaves or subject any other person to forced labor, debt bondage or peonage.” Similarly, Ethiopia prohibits forced labor in its constitution “[n]o one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.” Both Liberia and Ethiopia de jure prohibitions against forced labor; however, the reality in their countries is starkly different; in many instances, the words — prohibitum are just that.
The Liberian Case
Liberia is in a recovering democratic stage, meaning that its governmental organizations and institution are reimagining and reasserting their legitimacy and impact on the citizens they serve. Liberia suffered years of civil war and social dissent, which exasperated social inequities and grave human rights violations, including forced labor and child labor trafficking. During the years of the Liberian Civil War (1989–1997 and 1999–2003), hundreds of thousands of Liberians were killed, and nearly 1.5 million Liberians qualify and need humanitarian aid. As is the consensus among criminal justice scholars and international law authorities, poverty and ineffective institution create fertile grounds for exploitation especially concerning society’s most vulnerable — women and children. Liberia’s social climate allows for the exploitation of its women and children especially regarding forced labor. Shortly following the first Liberian Civil War, a nongovernmental assailant with ties to militia groups abducted civilians, namely women and children, and forced them into military combat or rubber tree tapping. Similarly, following the second Liberian Civil War, particularly among the women and children of the Mandingo and Krahn ethnic groups, military combatants with ties to the former President Charles Taylor’s government routinely subjected women and children to forced labor and, for the latter military combat. Liberia is almost 20 years removed from its second civil war, but the issue of forced labor remains prevalent within the country because the social conditions that were present during its civil wars are still present today.
Approximately 25% of children are not registered at birth, and 16.6% of Liberian children are employed in harsh agricultural labor conditions. Liberia’s governmental response to the forced labor of children and women has been tepid at best. According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, Liberia has only prosecuted two defendants and investigated only seven within 2021 for trafficking violations, including forced labor. As has been the case with Liberia throughout its history, the government has passed several pieces of legislation, such as the 2005 Act to Ban Trafficking in Persons, and provisions of the Liberian Labor Code have language that prohibits forced labor trafficking but with minimal effect. Moreover, Liberia’s National Police Force, and Liberian Immigration Force, two components of the Ministry of Justice, have forces such as the Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) of the LNP and the Anti-Human Trafficking and Smuggling Unit of the LIS have a focus on combatting trafficking incidents including forced labor. However, despite all of Liberia’s official government responses to trafficking, forced labor remains a problem throughout the country’s rural areas. The WACPS is severely underfunded in the country, and The Anti-Human Trafficking and Smuggling Unit of the LIS has only 14 enforcement and investigative officers, with one of the officers stationed at each of Liberia’s ports of entry. Liberia’s current case is a cause of concern because the current governmental response is not effective, and as a result, there are consistent trends of forced labor and minimal governmental effectiveness. As I will discuss later, Liberia’s response to labor trafficking should include cooperation with regional and corporate partners in its fight to eliminate forced labor trafficking.
The Ethiopian Case
Like Liberia, Ethiopia is a developing democracy with significant poverty and a struggling governmental response to human trafficking crimes, including labor trafficking. Ethiopia endured a long civil war (1974–1991), transforming it from a centuries-old monarchy to a fledging republic. The civil war and subsequent regional and domestic conflict notedly, the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, and the recent Oromo Somali-Gedeo Ethnic conflicts have exacerbated the pervasive poverty within the country, especially in its rural areas.
At the conclusion of the Ethiopian Civil War, the new republic established the Ethiopian Human Rights and Peace Center (EHRPC) to combat human rights violations, including labor trafficking. The EHRPC worked closely with the Ethiopian Transitional Government (TGE) to find solutions to women’s issues particularly those that regulated women to second-class status. However, despite the efforts and resources the Ethiopian transitional government and EHRPC invested in social welfare programs, these did not percolate to combating child forced labor and general conditions of children within the country. The transitional government also made forced labor a criminal offense, and by 1993 according to its Human Rights Report to the U.S. Congress, “forced labor is virtually nonexistent.” However, despite the transitional government's early efforts to combat human trafficking and transition Ethiopians to a modern democracy, forced labor is still a major problem in the country.
According to the Trafficking in Persons Report, Ethiopia is arguably doing worse than Liberia in combating labor trafficking. Ethiopia’s Swati ethnic group is plagued by their young women and minor girls being forced to perform domestic work and Swati boys being forced to work on “dagga” (i.e., marijuana) farms in rural areas. The Ethiopian government has failed to muster a strong response to the exploitation of Swati children and women. The government of Ethiopia decreased anti-trafficking officers and did not prosecute anyone in 2020 for alleged trafficking offenses. Now it’s important to note that the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the world and placed significant social and economic limitations on countries around the world, including Ethiopia. However, despite the pandemic, Ethiopia investigated 27 instances of trafficking in 2020, including reported labor trafficking violations but prosecuted none and provided little reason for failing to prosecute. Moreover, in 2019 there were 153 reported convictions of forced labor in Ethiopia, compared to zero in 2020–21. Ethiopia has decreased its activities in investigating, prosecuting, and convicting forced labor trafficking and, as a result, left its rural and vulnerable populations — women and children to exploitation. Furthermore, the Migration and Human Trafficking Crime Team, which was only recently established in 2019, consists of 35 investigations and six prosecutors to serve a country of 115 million people. Based on these stats, it is not surprising that Ethiopia’s labor trafficking circumstances have not improved because the government’s response has significantly decreased. However, Ethiopia has made minimal strides to address labor trafficking, particularly by working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and regional partners to provide resources for victims of trafficking and to increase its antitrafficking efforts.
Section II: Breaking the Yoke: The Methods Ethiopia and Liberia can Implement to Further Combat Trafficking
Despite the limitations to Liberia’s and Ethiopia’s measures to combat labor trafficking, they are both positioned well for innovative ways to combat trafficking, notedly cooperating with regional partners and strengthening the agreements between the corporate sector and the government. Labor trafficking, like other forms of trafficking, is a transnational criminal issue that international law has been slow to eradicate but nonetheless requires a multilateral approach to remedy.
Liberia and Ethiopia have already demonstrated an interest in working with regional partners in combating labor trafficking. This section of my discussion will focus on the ways both countries can continue and be more effective in combatting labor trafficking within their respective states. As I briefly mentioned above, I believe the most effective way to combat a transnational issue and international crime such as labor trafficking requires a multilateral approach such as working with regional partners outside of their state and strengthening corporate nongovernmental organization (NGO) cooperation to identify, target and effectively prevent and prosecute labor trafficking.
In 2019, The African Union unveiled its ten-year plan (2020–2030) to address human trafficking, including labor trafficking. The African Union, which is a political, though not sovereign, union of African nations, including Ethiopia and Liberia, promotes cooperation among African nations and addresses human rights and geopolitical issues affecting the continent. The African Union’s ten-year plans specifically address labor trafficking as one of the most pervasive issues affecting the continent. (“Forced labour, human trafficking, contemporary forms of slavery, and child labour –particularly its worst forms — are grievous issues of concern throughout the world. In 2016, an estimated 25 million people were in forced labour worldwide, including 4.8 million in coerced commercial sexual exploitation.”) Furthermore, the report details that about 152 million children throughout the continent were subjected to child forced labor. Additionally, the plan highlights that 79% of its labor trafficking incidents came from West Africa and 46% from East Africa. From the statistics, Liberia and Ethiopia fall within regions of Africa where the need for a robust and multilateral approach to combating labor trafficking is paramount. The African Union’s ten-year plan is one of the most accessible ways Liberia and Ethiopia can work with regional partners to combat labor trafficking.
The AU’s plan outlines several strategies to eradicate labor trafficking, including mobilizing AU institutions to build greater support for antitrafficking initiatives across the continent, institutionalizing the submission and reporting of antitrafficking activities throughout the continent and the creation of thematic groups that focus on addressing components of labor trafficking. Each of these strategies working in conjunction with the international community and Ethiopia’s and Liberia’s governments, has the potential to effectively combat labor trafficking by encouraging a diversity of viewpoints and approaches to addressing the issue. As discussed above, Ethiopia and Liberia's current methods suffer underinvestment from their domestic governments; working with the African Union and the other states surrounding them, the investment gap could presumably decrease, thus potentially increasing the number of anti-labor trafficking investigations from their 2020–21 levels.
Additionally, the AU’s ten-year plan encourages the expansion of victim identification and assistance initiatives. This would include an increased focus on sectors that are uniquely vulnerable to labor trafficking, such as “domestic service, commercial sexual exploitation, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture.” As discussed above, Ethiopia and Liberia are plagued by the exploitation of women and children in domestic service, and agricultural labor — working with the AU to identify victims and provide meaningful assistance is critical to eradicating labor trafficking incidents that normally are hidden in plain sight. The AU’s plan also provides for developing “generic protocols and operating procedures” to identify victims; however, I do not believe this is the most effective method of victim identification and assistance. Africa is a diverse continent, and in the case of Ethiopia and Liberia, their geography and populaces are largely different despite their similar political positioning. A one-size fits all approach to victim identification will leave gaps in identifying more innocuous labor trafficking incidents that may not fall neatly within a “generic framework.”
Overall, the African Union’s ten-year plan effectively increases regional cooperation and provides more resources for developing countries such as Liberia and Ethiopia to effectively combat labor trafficking in their respective states. However, the regional cooperation framework is one component of my proposed multilateral approach, the other component is an increase in NGO-corporation cooperation with the governments of Liberia and Ethiopia to target labor trafficking in their states.
The NGO Approach
NGOs are critical to combating global issues, especially where governmental organizations are either ill-equipped or underequipped to combat often fast-changing and innocuous issues such as labor trafficking. The United States State Department recommends that Liberia “[i]ncrease financial or in-kind support to NGOs that support trafficking victims.” Additionally, the State Department recommends that Ethiopia collaborate with NGOs to increase their “capacity to provide shelter and protective services to more trafficking victims, including adult males and foreign nationals” and “to research the extent of human trafficking within Ethiopia and produce a publicly available annual report.”  Working with NGOs such as the International Labor Organization, United to Fight Against Human Trafficking (UNITAS), and the Borgen Project, among other organizations, can help subsidize Liberia and Ethiopia's stressed and often limited resources dedicated to combating labor trafficking. Liberia and Ethiopia could benefit from greater NGO support in the areas of victim identification and assistance, public awareness and advocacy, and criminal prosecution and investigation. NGOs can provide Liberia and Ethiopia’s anti-trafficking units with tools, training, and additional expertise to be able to thoroughly investigate and successfully prosecute labor trafficking in urban and rural areas while providing victim assistance.
However, as effective as NGOs are in aiding global governments in combating innocuous issues, they also have their disadvantages. NGOs largely focus on more passive responses to trafficking, such as public awareness, education campaigns, and political advocacy. However, very few are engaged in the often-grueling work of rescuing trafficked victims and training law enforcement and victim assistance programs. Moreover, NGOs are tethered to their donors, and priorities are placed upon the interests of big-money donors and funds. Furthermore, most NGOs do not solely focus on labor trafficking, which is concerning considering that labor trafficking is one of the most prevalent human trafficking crimes proliferated. 
NGOs, despite their shortcomings, remain effective partners with global governments in combating trafficking. By increasing their cooperation and interaction with NGOs, Ethiopia and Liberia can enrich their current antitrafficking approaches.
The yoke of labor trafficking has plagued Africa, including Ethiopia and Liberia, for far too long. Ethiopia and Liberia, one of the continent’s oldest countries and the latter one of its first democracies, have allowed their anti-trafficking efforts to become stagnant and partially ineffective. My intent in penning this discussion is to provide an additional voice and approach to dealing with the issue of labor trafficking within my diaspora’s homeland. A multilateral approach to combating labor trafficking that utilizes regional cooperation and greater strategic NGO participation will greatly aid Liberia, Ethiopia, and Africa in their fight to eradicate labor trafficking by 2030. “Kairo-Bereketi!”
 See Matthew Henry, Isaiah 10 Commentary, Blue Letter Bible Commentary (web access: https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/mhc/Isa/Isa_010.cfm).
 See V. Counted, African Christian Diaspora religion and/or spirituality: A concept analysis and reinterpretation, Critical Research on Religion, 7(1), 58–79 (2019).
 See David Ziskind, Forced Labor in the Law of Nations, 3 Comp. Lab. L. 253,253 (1980
 International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention №29, Article 2 (1) 1930.
 African Union, African Union Ten Year Action Plan on Eradication of Child Labour, Forced Labour, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in Africa (2020–2030), pg. 3.
 See Liberian Constitution Chapter III, Article 12 (1986).
 See Constitution of Ethiopia Part One, Article 18, Clause 3.
 See Liberia, 21 Ann. Hum. Rts. Rep. Submitted to Cong. by U.S. Dep’t St. 147,149 (1996).
 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services-Office on Trafficking in Persons, Labor Trafficking, Official Campaign Material (web access: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/archive/otip/fact-sheet/fact-sheet-labor-trafficking-english )
 See Liberia, 21 Ann. Hum. Rts. Rep. Submitted to Cong. by U.S. Dep’t St. 147,150 (1996).
 See Liberia, 28 Ann. Hum. Rts. Rep. Submitted to Cong. by U.S. Dep’t St. 312,313 (2003).
 See “Top Ten Facts about Child Labor in Liberia,” The Borgen Project (2019).
 See “Liberia,” TIP Report, pg. 357.
 See TIP Report, pg. 358.
 See Ethiopia, 18 Ann. Hum. Rts. Rep. Submitted to Cong. by U.S. Dep’t St. 91,92(1993).
 Id at 97.
 Id. At 98.
 Id. At 99.
 See TIP Report, pg. 231.
 Id. At 232.
 See TIP Report, 232
 Id. At 233.
 See African Union Ten Year Action Plan on Eradication of Child Labour, Forced Labour, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in Africa (2020–2030), pg. 1.
 Id at 6.
 See African Union Ten Year Action Plan on Eradication of Child Labour, Forced Labour, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in Africa (2020–2030), pgs. 17–18.
 See African Union Ten Year Action Plan on Eradication of Child Labour, Forced Labour, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in Africa (2020–2030), pg. 20.
 Id at 20.
 See Hildy Teegan, Jonathan P. Doh, Sushil Vachani, The importance of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in global governance and value creation: an international business research agenda, The Journal of International Business Studies, 1–21 (2004).
 Liberia, U.S. State Department Reports (web access: https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/liberia/).
 See Liberia, U.S. State Department Reports (web access: https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/ethiopia/ ).
 See S.A. Limoncelli, What in the World are Anti-trafficking NGOs Doing? Findings from a Global Study, Journal of Human Trafficking Vol. 2, №4, 324 (2016).
 Id at 322.
 Kairo is translated as “peace” in Mandinka (one of the native Liberian languages), and Bereketi is “blessing” in Amharic (one of the native Ethiopian languages). Both words together make the English phrase “Peace and Blessings.”