BREAKING THE YOKE: Are Liberia and Ethiopia's governmental responses effectively combating forced labor trafficking among their youth and women?

A picture depicting diverse women from Liberia taken from Borgen Project (top); a picture depicting diverse women from Ethiopia (below).

Section I: Defining the Problem: What is Forced Labor?

Forced labor is one of the modern era's most pervasive human trafficking crimes.[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.”[6] Similarly, Ethiopia prohibits forced labor in its constitution “[n]o one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.”[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.

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.[15]

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.

Regional Approach

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.

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.[32] The United States State Department recommends that Liberia “[i]ncrease financial or in-kind support to NGOs that support trafficking victims.”[33] 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.” [34] 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.

CONCLUSION

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!”[38]

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Ian Courts

Ian Courts

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Attorney, Young Black Voice, Law & Politics Observer. HBCU Law Alumnus, and Fur dad!