The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is ruled by its only constitutionally legitimate party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The most recent National Assembly election held in 2016 was not free and fair. The LPRP selected all candidates, and voting is mandatory for all citizens. Following the election the National Assembly approved Thongloun Sisoulith to be prime minister.
The Ministry of Public Security maintains internal security and is responsible for law enforcement; the ministry oversees local, traffic, immigration, and security police, village police auxiliaries, and other armed police units. The armed forces, under the Ministry of Defense, also have some domestic security responsibilities, including counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and border security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary detention; political prisoners; censorship; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; and trafficking in persons.
While the government prosecuted and punished officials for corruption, there were no prosecutions or punishments for officials who committed other abuses, and police and security forces committed human rights abuses with impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government severely restricted political speech and writing and prohibited most public criticism it deemed harmful to its reputation.
Freedom of Expression: The law provides citizens the right to criticize the government but forbids slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state. On September 16, police arrested Houayheuang Xayabouly on charges of defaming the country when she criticized on Facebook the government’s response to flooding in Champassak and Salavan Provinces. She had previously used social media to criticize graft and greed among government officials. She pled guilty and in November was sentenced to five years in prison and a 20 million kip ($2,260) fine.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally exercised self-censorship, particularly after the 2012 disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate. NGOs said they also tried to avoid saying anything that might further delay government approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) needed to carry out their work. NGOs reported that citizens are taught at an early age not to criticize the government.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The state owned and controlled most domestic print and electronic media. Local news reflected government policy. The government permitted publication of several privately owned periodicals of a nonpolitical nature, including ones specializing in business, society, and trade. By law foreign media must submit articles to the government before publication; however, authorities did not enforce these controls. The government did not allow foreign news organizations to set up bureaus in the country, except those from neighboring communist states China and Vietnam.
Although the government closely controlled domestic television and radio broadcasts, it did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad. Citizens had 24-hour access to international stations via satellite and cable television. The government required owners of satellite receivers to register them and pay a one-time licensing fee, largely as a revenue-generating measure, but otherwise made no effort to restrict their use.
The government restricted the activities of foreign journalists. Authorities denied journalists free access to information sources and at times required them to travel with official escorts.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Officials reviewed all articles in privately owned periodicals after publication and by law could penalize those whose articles did not meet government approval. Publishers and journalists were generally aware of what content the government would approve for publication and practiced self-censorship. The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism’s Mass Media Department did not confirm whether the government disapproved any publication during the year.
Authorities prohibited dissemination of materials deemed subversive of national culture or politically sensitive. Any person found guilty of importing a publication considered offensive to national culture was subject to a fine of one to three times the value of the item or imprisonment of up to one year.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The government restricted freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In-country Movement: Citizens traveling for religious purposes, including to minister, give advice, or visit other churches are required to seek permission from central and provincial authorities. This process can take several weeks. Christian groups reported problems obtaining permission to travel within the country, although many chose to ignore this requirement.
The government’s policy for Hmong separatists who either surrendered internally or returned from Thailand was to offer them amnesty and return them to their community of origin whenever possible.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated in some cases with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. For example, in August, four Thai activists living in Laos applied for and received asylum in France. As mentioned earlier (section 1.b.), however, Thai political activists living in the country have disappeared in recent years.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, but the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Ministry of Public Security did not routinely grant refugee or asylum status but dealt with individuals on a case-by-case basis.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law denies citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage, and it did not provide for the free expression of the will of the people. Although the constitution outlines a system comprising executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the LPRP controlled governance and leadership at all levels through its constitutionally designated leading role.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials and the government made some progress in addressing corruption. Some officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: Official corruption was widespread and found at all levels of government, and was acknowledged by government-controlled media. In March local media reported that investigating agencies discovered more than 1,000 cases of corruption in 2018, with 1,285 persons involved (including 970 government officials and 315 persons from the private sector). The government established an anticorruption hotline that reportedly was often used, and members of the public frequently raised awareness of government officials’ inappropriate or suspicious activities on social media; such postings were not censored or removed.
In 2018 the government prosecuted 55 persons in cases that cost the government $113.6 million, up from $45 million in 2017. Many cases involved bribery or theft in connection with infrastructure development projects. In March, 18 state employees in Attapeu Province were dismissed for embezzlement and property theft. In April, 19 party members and state employees were dismissed for embezzlement and 21 were disciplined for involvement with illegal timber trading. Earlier in the year, authorities in Xayaburi Province disciplined 102 provincial government workers for violating LPRP rules. In May, Xiengkhouang Province authorities punished officials for embezzling several million dollars by “re-educating” 16 officials, demoting two, and issuing a warning to nine others.
Financial Disclosure: There is no legal requirement for public disclosure of assets and income by appointed or elected officials, although LPRP policy requires senior officials, prior to taking their designated positions, to disclose their personal assets and those of their dependents, but not their incomes, to the party’s inspection committee. The committee inspects the officials’ assets before and after they have been in their positions. Persons not compliant with this policy are subject to unspecified sanctions, although the LPRP used its control of government authorities and media to block public censure of corrupt officials who were party members.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups operated only under government oversight, and the government limited their ability to investigate or publish findings on human rights abuses.
The government intermittently responded in writing to requests for information on the human rights situation from international human rights organizations. Moreover, the government maintained human rights dialogues with some foreign governments and continued to receive training in UN human rights conventions from international donors.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government continued to support a National Committee on Human Rights, chaired by the minister to the Prime Minister’s Office, and composed of representatives from the government, National Assembly, the judiciary, and LPRP-affiliated organizations. The Department of Treaties and Legal Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs acts as the secretariat for the National Human Rights Steering Committee and has authority to review and highlight challenges in the protection of human rights.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law does not provide for the right of workers to form and join worker organizations independent of the Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), an organ of the LPRP. The law defines collective bargaining but does not set out conditions, and it requires the examination of all collective bargaining agreements by the Labor Administration Agency. The law provides for the right to strike, subject to certain limitations. The law does not permit police, civil servants, foreigners, and members of the armed forces to form or join unions. There is a general prohibition against discrimination against employees for reasons unrelated to performance, although there is no explicit prohibition against antiunion discrimination. There is no explicit requirement for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.
The law requires a workforce of 10 or more workers to elect one or more employee representatives. Where a trade union exists, the head of the union is by default the employee representative. Both representatives and trade union heads may bargain collectively with employers on matters including working conditions or recruitment, wages, welfare, and other benefits.
Trade union law allows workers in the informal economy, including workers outside of labor units or who were self-employed, to join LFTU-affiliated unions. It also established rights and responsibilities for “laborer representatives,” which the law defines as “an individual or legal entity selected by the workers and laborers in labor units to be a representative to protect their legitimate rights and interest.”
There was no information on the resources dedicated to enforcement of freedom of association provisions of the labor laws. Penalties under law for infringing on workers’ freedom of association include fines, incarceration, and/or business license revocation; these penalties were sufficient to deter violations, although violations and enforcement were rare.
The government reported the law permits affiliation between independent unions of separate branches of a company but that it does not explicitly allow or disallow affiliation at the industry, provincial, or national levels. There were reports that unions not affiliated with the LFTU existed in some industries, including the garment industry, light manufacturing, and agricultural processing. These unions were not allowed to strike.
Labor disputes reportedly were infrequent, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare generally did not enforce the dispute resolution section of the labor law, especially in dealings with joint ventures in the private sector. In February 2018 the government issued a decree to help resolve labor disputes, including disputes related to salaries and working hours.
According to local law, workers who join an organization that encourages protests, demonstrations, and other actions that might cause “turmoil or social instability” can face prison time. The government’s overall prohibition of activities it considered subversive or demonstrations it considered destabilizing, workers’ lack of familiarity with the provisions of the amended labor law, and general aversion to open confrontation continued to make workers extremely unlikely to exercise their right to strike.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law prohibits private employers from using forced labor, and the penalties for perpetrating forced labor can include fines, suspension from work, revocation of business license, and prosecution. The law allows for prisoners to work. There may be civil or criminal prosecutions for forced labor violations. Penalties for trafficking in persons, which includes forced labor, consist of imprisonment, fines, and confiscation of assets. Such penalties were sufficiently stringent to deter violations. Due to limited numbers of inspectors, among other factors, the government did not effectively enforce the law.
According to civil society organizations, the establishment of large-scale, foreign-financed agricultural plantations led to displacement of local farmers. Unable to continue traditional practices of subsistence agriculture, many farmers sought employment as day laborers through local brokers.
Also, see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. Child labor is outlawed except under very strict, limited conditions that ensure no interference with the child’s education or physical well-being. Age 14 is the minimum for employment. The law allows children from ages 14 to 18 to work a maximum of eight hours per day, provided such work is not dangerous or difficult. Employers may, however, employ children from ages 12 to 14 to perform light work. The law applies only to work undertaken in a formal labor relationship, not to self-employment or informal work.
The Ministry of Public Security and Justice, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, including in the informal economy, but enforcement was ineffective due to the lack of inspectors. The law prescribes penalties of imprisonment and fines, which were not sufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare conducted public awareness campaigns, organized workshops with the National Commission for Mothers and Children in the northern and southern provinces, and collected data on child labor as part of its effort to implement the National Plan of Action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor.
There were reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children (see section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law requires equal pay for equal work, although a gender wage gap persisted, and prohibits discrimination in hiring based on a woman’s marital status or pregnancy, and it protects against dismissal on these grounds. The government enforced prohibitions against employment discrimination or requirements for equal pay; penalties under law included fines but were insufficient to deter violations.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
In May 2018 the government raised the monthly minimum wage for all private-sector workers; it is higher than the estimated national poverty line.
The law provides for a workweek limited to 48 hours (36 hours for employment in dangerous activities). Overtime may not exceed 45 hours per month, and each period of overtime may not exceed three hours. Employers may apply to the government for an exception, which the law stipulates workers or their representatives must also approve.
Occupational health and safety standards existed, but inspections were inconsistent. The law provides for safe working conditions and higher compensation for dangerous work, but it does not explicitly protect the right of workers to remove themselves from a hazardous situation. In case of injury or death on the job, employers are responsible to compensate the worker or the worker’s family. The law requires employers to report accidents causing major injury to or death of an employee or requiring an employee to take a minimum of four days off work to the Labor Administration Agency. The law also mandates extensive employer responsibility for workers who became disabled while at work. The law does not specify penalties for noncompliance with occupational safety and health provisions, but they could include warnings, fines, “re-education,” or suspension of business license.
The law also prohibits the employment of pregnant women and new mothers in occupations deemed hazardous to women’s reproductive health. The law requires the transfer of women working in such jobs to less demanding positions, and they are entitled to maintain the same salary or wage.
The government did not always effectively enforce the law.
The Department of Labor Management within the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare is responsible for workplace inspections. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance.
Some piecework employees, especially on construction sites, earned less than the minimum wage. The overtime or wage law was not effectively enforced.
There were a number of undocumented migrant workers in the country, particularly from Vietnam and Burma, who were vulnerable to exploitation by employers in the logging, mining, and agricultural sectors. Migrants from China and Vietnam also worked in construction, plantations, casinos, and informal service industries, sectors where wage and occupational safety and health violations were common.