Since the early 1980s, the Sierra Leone labor force has been shrinking due to a combination of factors such as worsening economic conditions that affected most developing countries in the 1980s, the decline in the price of raw materials in the world market, misrule in the form of embezzlement of funds by government officials, and the effects of IMF conditions such as the freeze on hiring and the laying off of thousands of civil servants, in order to reduce the size of government.
In 1981, before the downward slide into massive unemployment, the country had an estimated 1.369 million workers with most found in agriculture (65 percent), followed by industry (19 percent), and services (16 percent). However, in 1985 there were only 65,000 wage earners. The struggle for good working conditions by trade union activists has been an integral part of relations between government and labor. Trade unionism began in Sierra Leone as early as 1914 with the formation of a union among temporary customs workers. In 1971 an act of Parliament guaranteed the right of workers to industrial action upon due notification. According to law, minimum pay rates and maximum hours should be regulated every 2 years and the government is committed to upholding the right of workers to form unions and bargain for better pay and good working conditions. Politicians have often undermined the effectiveness of labor unions through co-optation of the leaders—bribing the leaders, or enticing them with better job offers, so that they drop their demands for pay raises and better working conditions. In the early 1980s, for example, both the leaders of the Sierra Leone Labor Congress (SLLC), and the president of the Sierra Leone Teachers' Union (SLTU) were appointed members of parliament in order to separate them from the unions, which would, in turn, end their activism. Working conditions are still far from ideal. Government employees get meager salaries, and often go unpaid for several months. The uncertainty of government jobs means that many workers engage in petty trading in order to survive.