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2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Laos

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2007
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Laos, 9 June 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c52ca232b.html [accessed 30 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 5,900,000
Capital: Vientiane
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 138 – 182

There was little change in Laos, one of the few remaining communist states in the world and one of the poorest countries in Asia. The 1994 Labour Law does not adequately protect trade union rights. The only trade union organisation is closely linked to the sole legal political party and serves primarily as a workers' auxiliary to that political organisation. There is a pattern of systematic non-enforcement of the provisions of the law that provide protections to workers.

Trade union rights in law

No freedom of association: Trade union freedom does not really exist in Laos. Under the 1994 Labour Law, "workers and employers shall have the right to organise and belong to any mass and social organisation that has been formed lawfully". However, labour unions must be affiliated with the government sanctioned Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU). This body is directly controlled by the single political party, the LPRP. The LFTU's four yearly congresses and leadership elections all take place with the authorisation of the LPRP. Factory level LFTU representatives are usually LPRP members and/or part of the management of state-run or private sector companies. The Constitution actually says that the LFTU's role is "to unite and mobilise all ... people for taking part in the tasks of national defence and construction." The Constitution further limits trade union rights by stating that Lao citizens can only set up associations or hold demonstrations that are " ... not contrary to the law" – making independent unions un-Constitutional. The labour law echoes this formulation, indicating that workers and employers can belong only to any organisation "that has been formed lawfully."

Civil servants employed in state administrative organs, and employees in state enterprises still constitute the overwhelming majority of the LFTU's members. Civil servants are excluded from the remit of the 1994 Labour Law.

Article 11 states that all enterprises covered by the law must establish a trade union "in accordance with specific regulations of the sectors concerned." However, representatives of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MOLSW) acknowledged to the National Assembly that there is no punishment under law for employers who fail to comply with this requirement. Workers' organisations are supposedly free to set their own rules and elect representatives, but their "functions and activities" are actually set by regulation.

Protection against anti-union discrimination: According to the labour law, employers may not fire employees for conducting trade union activities "with the approval of the employer or outside working hours", nor for filing complaints against employers about labour law implementation.

Severe limitations on bargaining and strikes: The 1994 Labour law was supposed to establish certain minimum labour standards. trade unions are allowed to negotiate with employers over wage levels, but there is no provision which compels employers to bargain.

Although strikes are not illegal, the right to strike is severely restricted by dissuasive penalties. The penal code provides for between one and five years' imprisonment for those who join an organisation that encourages protests, demonstrations and other actions that might cause "turmoil or social instability." The labour law does not allow strikes in "disputes over interests", while "disputes over rights" must be mediated through procedures that produce a final decision that cannot be appealed. Therefore, there is no way to legally strike under the law, meaning all strikes are de facto illegal and subject to penalty.

Dispute resolution: According to the Labour Code, disputes must be resolved through workplace committees made up of employers, representatives of the local labour union and representatives of the LFTU. Final authority lies with the MOLSW. The LFTU also claims to mediate between workers and employers to resolve any issues.

Trade union rights in practice

Union and party hand in glove: Given the fact that the LFTU and LPRP are so closely knit, the union does not effectively protect workers' rights. It is rather a labour front for the ruling party. Indeed, the President and two vice Presidents of the LFTU are accorded status equal to a Minister and vice Ministers in the government, and the LFTU presidium and top officers are all paid salaries by the government. In March 2001, then LFTU President Venethong Luangvily stated in a speech to the 7th Congress of the ruling party that the LFTU operates "under the Party's leadership", and according to government policy. There have been no indications since then that the relationship between the government and the LFTU has changed.

No bargaining: The government unilaterally sets wages for government employees and this determination is not subject to collective bargaining. For private sector employees, the Labour Law gives unions the right to negotiate pay levels with the employer. However, there is no provision in the labour law that compels an employer to bargain or penalizes the failure of an employer to bargain. There was no indication during the year that collective bargaining agreements were concluded in either the public or private sector.

Lack of law enforcement: Observers from international NGOs and embassies based in Vientiane indicate that non-enforcement of the labour law by the MOLSW, particularly in dealings with joint ventures in the private sector, is the norm. An investigation found that at the central level, the Department of Labour had a total of only 18 civil servants and there were no dedicated labour inspectors.

Dispute resolution in practice: Since the access of the LFTU to enter factories remains limited and they must provide advance notice of such a visit, LFTU is largely powerless to protect workers who file complaints. The dispute mediation system apparently only usually works in the most grievous of cases.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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