The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) initially joined the SUN Movement in 2011 and, by 2016, the government began working to mobilise support to liaise with the private sector. Since forming in 2018, the Lao PDR SUN Business Network (SBN) has grown to 34 members and launched a number of initiatives, as they make big strides towards improving nutrition across the country.
Identifying nutrition needs
To improve nutrition and address specific Laotian health needs, SBN Laos is working to engage the private sector in their efforts, in collaboration with government agencies and public organisations. A number of specific nutritional needs identified by SBN Laos includes addressing high rates of anaemia in women of reproductive age (nearly 40%), child stunting (33%) and unhealthy weight gains (20-21% of adults are overweight).
The network’s efforts to involve multiple sectors in their efforts to improve nutrition is critical, as these industries, from government agencies to garment factories, employ large numbers of individuals. As such, the network is working hard to implement an initiative centred on workforce nutrition across these sectors. Manilay Vanphavong, Country Coordinator of SBN Laos, enthuses that “workforce nutrition has been implemented in many countries with positive evidence that both the employer and employee benefit, with increased productivity and reduced sick leave.”
In addition, the employees in the programme’s targeted sectors are members of key groups, including women of reproductive age and lactating mothers, who would benefit hugely from improved nutrition. In their efforts to address workforce nutrition, SBN Laos is tackling four specific areas of focus: healthy food at work, nutrition education, health checks and breastfeeding.
A set of ‘Nutrition at Work’ guidelines, modelled on GAIN’s guidelines, are SBN Laos’ primary strategy through which to tackle workforce nutrition. A key aspect of the guidelines is that they are widely applicable to a variety of work environments. For example, ensuring the availability of healthy food at work is one of SBN Laos’ four priority areas, but achieving this goal is much more complex than simply introducing nutritious food products into workplaces. Currently, rather than food being provided in a canteen, most employees receive a cash allowance to buy food. However, this cash tends to be used to purchase a cheap, unbalanced meal, such as rice, and any remaining money is retained for their families. Consequently, employees often look unfavourably upon efforts to introduce canteens into workplaces.
In addition, another key consideration with regards to providing healthy food at work is that factory employees come from a ‘melting pot’ of the 49 ethnic groups living in Lao PDR. Each group has different cultures and eating preferences, meaning that canteen food must cater to the tastes and requirements of all the workforce, which is no easy feat. Consequently, some employers have opted to continue offering cash, whilst others provide only one meal option in the canteen with no alternatives. However, a varied menu with appropriate options to satisfy all employees is provided by one notable employer.
To help provide sufficient diversity to meet all the varying requirements, the network’s guidelines provide six options to help ensure healthy food at work, including a combination of cash and nutrition education to encourage employees to make good decisions for their own health, as well as company-subsidised healthy snacks. “This workforce nutrition programme has been adapted and designed in the Lao context, with various choices for the employers to implement,” explains Manilay. SBN Laos also provides support to factories in the implementation of education and nutrition improvement initiatives alongside the guidelines, including advocacy materials and basic check-up tools for the nurse in the factory, which combine to form a collective workforce nutrition programme.
Collaborating for collective growth
In February 2021, SBN Laos took a big step in the development and implementation of the workforce nutrition guidelines, with an event which gathered private sector corporations, such as garment factories, and public sector organisations including the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. The event, hosted in collaboration with the European Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Lao PDR, was critical to SBN Laos’ efforts to address nutrition in the workplace, as any efforts made by the network must be supported by a wide breadth of sectors and entities, both public and private. With this in mind, the event aimed to facilitate discussions among the organisations in attendance to raise awareness of the country’s malnutrition issues and the importance of addressing them.
In relation to the private sector in particular, the event aimed to increase the corporations’ understanding of the importance of improved workplace nutrition, share good business practices on improved nutrition, encourage participation in the workplace nutrition programme, and further develop the guidelines to be more practical and easier to implement in a factory setting. One such development to come from the panel discussion, for example, is a resolution to include nutrition measures in annual employee health checks. These checks are already a legal requirement in Lao PDR, but there are no specific guidelines as to what they must include. This is a great step in achieving this programme’s agenda, and “the Centre of Nutrition and SBN Laos team are pleased to support the private sector through the process of improving nutrition at the workplace,” says Manilay.
Looking to the future of Laotian nutrition
By engaging multi-sectoral stakeholders in their workforce nutrition programme, SBN Laos is already making strides and identifying feasible strategies to implement all aspects of its initiative. The Association of Lao Garment Industry (ALGI) has already requested a further event to discuss the guidelines and goals in a more detailed manner, and the network is continuing to make plans and facilitate discussions to work towards a more nutritious future for Laos. According to Phimmasone Aminthalath, ALGI vice president, their long-term goal is that all of their members are able to “eat well, be healthy, increase productivity, and enjoy a long life.”
Photos courtesy of SBN Laos