Labour Day in Lao PDR: protecting rights at work, enhancing social protection in times of COVID-19

As Lao PDR is marking Labour Day today, the values of the day are now more essential than ever, with COVID-19 disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put lives, jobs, and essential services at risk everywhere and served to highlight and exacerbate the social and economic injustices that underpin so many societies. The Lao Government is working hard to protect the population from the virus spread and to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the containment measures. The UN in Lao PDR supports the Government’s efforts and puts an emphasis on enhancing social protection for all, including the most vulnerable, supporting those who are hit hardest by livelihoods’ losses and protecting rights at work.

With the majority of the Lao population employed in the informal economy and in rural areas, decent work deficits are typically high and these workers are particularly vulnerable to socio-economic risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and threats to wellbeing, including food security, in case of loss of employment or income, illness or self-quarantine, just like vulnerable workers everywhere in the world. According to the Lao PDR’s Voluntary National Review (VNR) on the Implementation of 2030 Agenda, 11 per cent of rural households have poor or borderline food consumption, and this proportion might increase as livelihoods are strained by income losses due to the pandemic. In addition, workers employed in other significant sectors of the Lao PDR’s economy, such as the industries based on natural resources as well as the tourism sector (accounting for 10 per cent of the country’s employment mainly in micro, small & medium enterprises), will also face difficulties as COVID-19 complicates operations of the international supply chains and has put tourism on hold. All worker’s dependents, including children, adolescents, people with disabilities and older persons, face the same risks in case of unemployment of the primary bread-winner.

Migrants and their dependents have also been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic globally – and in Lao PDR. With migrants accounting for around 8 per cent of the Lao working population, according to the VNR, their remittances have become an important support for many families in the country over recent years. As COVID-19 struck, an estimated 140,000 migrants returned home to Lao PDR due to the loss of employment in Thailand and the travel restrictions put in place, leaving many families with a huge loss of income. Migrant workers often lack access to healthcare, social services and knowledge of basic hygiene precautions, some of them become internally displaced or face stigma and discrimination. For these migrant workers, and all working people suffering under the current circumstances, today is an occasion to be reminded of the need to promote social justice and decent work everywhere.

Read below an Op-ed by Guy Ryder, Director-General, International Labour Organization on how to support the livelihoods of most vulnerable affected by COVID-19:



In these times of COVID-19, the big challenge for most of us is how to protect ourselves and our families from the virus and how to hold on to our jobs. For policy-makers that translates into beating the pandemic without doing irreversible damage to the economy in the process.

With over 3 million cases and some 217,000 victims of the virus to date globally, and the expected loss of the equivalent of 305 million jobs worldwide by mid-year, the stakes have never been higher. Governments continue to “follow the science” in the search for the best solutions while foregoing the obvious benefits of much greater international cooperation in building the needed global response to the global challenge.

But with the war against COVID-19 still to be won, it has become commonplace that what awaits us after victory is a “new normal” in the way society is organized and the way we will work.

This is hardly reassuring.

Because nobody seems able to say what the new normal will be. Because the message is that it will be dictated by the constraints imposed by the pandemic rather than our choices and preferences. And because we’ve heard it before. The mantra which provided the mood music of the crash of 2008-2009 was that once the vaccine to the virus of financial excess had been developed and applied, the global economy would be safer, fairer, more sustainable. But that didn’t happen. The old normal was restored with a vengeance and those on the lower echelons of labour markets found themselves even further behind.

So 1 May, the International Day of Labour is the right occasion to look more closely at this new normal, and start on the task of making it a better normal, not so much for those who already have much, but for those who so obviously have too little.

This pandemic has laid bare in the cruellest way, the extraordinary precariousness and injustices of our world of work. It is the decimation of livelihoods in the informal economy - where six out of ten workers make a living - which has ignited the warnings from our colleagues in the World Food Programme, of the coming pandemic of hunger. It is the gaping holes in the social protection systems of even the richest countries, which have left millions in situations of deprivation. It is the failure to guarantee workplace safety that condemns nearly 3 million to die each year because of the work they do. And it is the unchecked dynamic of growing inequality which means that if, in medical terms, the virus does not discriminate between its victims in its social and economic impact, it discriminates brutally against the poorest and the powerless.

The only thing that should surprise us in all this is that we are surprised. Before the pandemic, the manifest deficits in decent work were mostly played out in individual episodes of quiet desperation. It has taken the calamity of COVID-19 to aggregate them into the collective social cataclysm the world faces today. But we always knew: we simply chose not to care. By and large, policy choices by commission or omission accentuated rather than alleviated the problem.

Fifty-two years ago, Martin Luther King, in a speech to striking sanitation workers on the eve of his assassination reminded the world that there is dignity in all labour. Today, the virus has similarly highlighted the always essential and sometimes heroic role of the working heroes of this pandemic. People who are usually invisible, unconsidered, undervalued, even ignored. Health and care workers, cleaners, supermarket cashiers, transport staff – too often numbered among the ranks of the working poor and the insecure.

Today the denial of dignity to these, and to millions of others, stand as a symbol of past policy failures and our future responsibilities.

On May Day next year we trust that the pressing emergency of COVID-19 will be behind us. But we will have before us the task of building a future of work which tackles the injustices that the pandemic has highlighted, together with the permanent and no longer postponable challenges of climate, digital and demographic transition.

This is what defines the better normal that has to be the lasting legacy of the global health emergency of 2020.

This Op-ed is written by Guy Ryder, Director-General, International Labour Organization.

Written by
Ms. Khemphone Phaokhamkeo
National Coordinator
Ms. Khemphone Phaokhamkeo - Photo
UN entities involved in this initiative
International Labor Organization
International Organization for Migration
United Nations