Since the tribal people of the interior form the bulk of the population and engage primarily in subsistence agriculture, there were few skilled laborers in Liberia until recent years. Although there is still a dearth of highly skilled mechanics and technicians, an increasing number of Liberians are becoming able plant and machine operators. Approximately 70% of workers were engaged in agriculture, with 22% in services, and 8% in industry in 2000. As of 2002 there has been only a gradual economic recovery since the civil war, with an estimated 70% of the labor force unemployed.
Before the onslaught of civil war, the labor force totaled about 1,349,000 persons. In 1988, total civilian employment stood at 701,000 and unemployment at 43%. The principal private employer then was Firestone, with 9,000 employees in 1987. The policy of foreign-owned companies has been to employ Liberian labor in the first instance and to encourage the training of skilled workers, especially in mechanical pursuits. There are still shortages of middle- and higher-level technicians and managerial personnel. From time to time, labor shortages are reported in large agricultural enterprises. The government has enacted a minimum wage law, but the larger employers have generally paid wages in excess of the legal minimum.
The Labor Congress of Liberia (LCL), formed in 1951, was the first significant trade union. Following the first major strike in 1955, the LCL leadership was arrested and the union dissolved. In 1958, it was revived under the leadership of the Ministry for Social Affairs and functioned mainly as a government organ. As a protest against government interference in the LCL, the Congress of Industrial Organizations of Liberia (CIOL) was organized in 1960. The Liberian Federation of Labor Unions was formed in 1980 by a merger of the LCL and CIOL. In 2002, there were a total of 30 functioning unions with a total of 60,000 members, most of whom were unemployed. Despite their organized strength, unions have little actual power.
There are minimum working ages, statutory minimum wages and occupational safety and health standards but none of these are effectively enforced. Child labor laws are similarly not enforced, especially in rural areas. Most people engage in any work available despite wages or conditions.