Fighting Back Against Exploitation in Laos

Oct 31, 2019

The Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), is building the power of private-sector workers to fight back against exploitation.
As the country moves from a centralised economy into an open-market economy, there has been a rapid growth of private-sector jobs, but this transition has also opened the door to exploitative employers. Without strong unions, employers will be able to get away with wage theft, exploitative conditions, and poor workplace health and safety standards.


The challenges of a deregulated economy

Mr. Boutda Senthavisouk, a locally-based union organiser for more than thirty years, recounted to Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA how the sale of the state-owned furniture factory where he works led to a dramatic loss of jobs, wages, safety standards, and social protections. After union membership dropped from eighty to eight, the LFTU is targeting his factory for a revival in union membership. Mr. Senthavisouk believes strong unions are the only way to improve conditions in his factory.


Above: A drying kiln lined with unsealed and flaking asbestos.

The Lao Federation of Trade Unions has 220,000 members across the country, but only around 4,000 are in the private-sector. Responding to this rapidly changing labour market was a challenge for the LFTU that required a greater capacity to organise workers in the private-sector, negotiate with employers, and influence government.


Rebuilding worker power in a new economy

With Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA’s assistance, and with the support of experienced organisers from Australia – Deb Nichols and Peter Stokes – the LFTU piloted a successful model for organising in the private-sector with a focus on raising awareness of workers’ rights, and effective representation within workplace negotiations.


Above: LFTU union organisers conducted a training on workplace health and safety for union members at a garment factory during lunch break.

To make sure that the rapid growth in Laos’ private-sector is not built on exploitative labour practices, Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA is now supporting the LFTU to further strengthen its capacity by supporting this new model of organising to 140 workplaces across a wide range of industries. Over 16,000 worker are represented by the LFTU in these sectors, and the vast majority are women.


Above: LFTU union organisers conducted a training on workplace health and safety for union members at a garment factory during lunch break.

In addition to boosting the number of members, the LFTU is negotiating and renewing collective bargaining agreements. By June 2019, there were already fifteen collective agreements signed, covering over 900 workers (nearly 600 of them were women). These agreements go beyond the minimum protections of the Laotian labour code, providing better wages, safer workplace protections, and fairer conditions.

Over the next eighteen months, the Lao Federation of Trade Unions will further build its new skills and capacity to represent private-sector workers. This will make sure that the benefits of Laos’ rapid growth are also enjoyed by workers.


Organising Against Exploitation

You can show your solidarity with workers fighting back against exploitation by giving a giving a donation to the 2019 Festive Appeal -APHEDA. With your support, more workers can join a union in the booming private-sector, where wage theft, exploitation, and poor workplace health and safety is rife.

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