Businesses have long been the drivers of economic growth and development. The foundation upon which business led growth is built in the creation of a safe, healthy and dynamic workplace. However, for some people the workplace is an environment where they experience feelings of exclusion, even harassment and discrimination. The failure to create a working environment that is inclusive, and celebrates diversity in experiences, ideas, and people is harming the health of workers, limiting economic development, and fundamentally failing to protect the rights of workers. One such group which often experiences significant exclusion in the workplace is LGBTI people.
Such exclusion can be difficult to see day-to-day, with many business managers unaware of the challenges faced by LGBTI workers. But the data tells a different story. In the UK, nearly seven in ten LGBTI people have been sexually harassed at work, but two thirds said they did not tell their employer about the harassment out of fear of being ‘outed’ as being LGBTI among their colleagues, thus revealing a “hidden epidemic”. And these figures show striking consistency when viewed across regions.
When compared with other countries in the Southeast Asia, Lao PDR lacks robust data on the exclusion of LGBTI people in the workplace. However, two recent studies have highlighted the lived experiences of LGBTI workers in Laos. A 2018 youth-led survey supported by UNESCO, in partnership with Proud to be us Laos, found that one in four LGBTI respondents in Vientiane Capital experienced discrimination when applying for jobs, with 15% responding that they had experienced discrimination in the workplace, and over 60% refraining from expressing their sexual orientation and gender identity based on fear of being discriminated. The key findings from a 2019 study by Proud to be Us Laos also indicate that 60% of LGBTI people in different occupations, from finance to housekeeping, have faced significant challenges in finding a job because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, while 20% reported discrimination and violence by both their colleagues and employers in the workplace.
Behind these statistics hide individual lives and personal stories of unemployment, financial hardship, physical and mental health issues, fear, despair, and loss of hope. But they also tell another story, one of untapped potential and missed opportunity for driving economic growth.
Fundamentally, tackling discrimination is the right thing to do – and essential to protect the human rights of LGBTI people, and ensure we leave no one behind as we move forward in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. But it’s also the smart thing to do for any business that wants to maximize the productivity of its own workforce – as well as for any country that wants to harness the full economic potential of its people. At a macro level, LGBTI discrimination can also have a significant cost. According to a report in 2020, discrimination against LGBTI people in India could be costing that country’s economy up to $32 billion a year in lost economic output.
Over a hundred countries globally fail to prohibit in law discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Nonetheless, business leaders have wasted no time in incorporating new policies that drive innovation and growth through two simple principles: diversity and inclusion.
Prioritizing diversity and inclusion principles, or D&I, helps unlock new talent, enhance business decision-making and strengthen customer, supplier, and investor loyalty. A recent survey found that 93% of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, and 85% include gender identity. And these policies are beginning to hit the bottom line, including in Southeast Asia. A 2020 study of Southeast Asian companies found a correlation between a more diverse workforce and greater innovation, with a higher share of revenue coming from new products.
The challenge for the Lao business sector is clear: they must strengthen non-discrimination policies and practices if they are going to reap the benefits of diverse, inclusive, and productive workplaces.
The tools are available to guide Lao PDR’s private sector through this transition. The UN Standards of Conduct for Business on Tackling Discrimination Against LGBTI People offer practical guidance to companies on how to respect and support the rights of LGBTI people in the workplace, labour market, and community. The UN Standards of Conduct are grounded in existing international human rights law and are aligned to the UN Business and Human Rights Framework. Over 300 companies – big and small, local and multinational – have signed and agreed to implement the UN Standards of Conduct, with 60 companies already banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. Several of these global champions operate in Lao PDR, including Coca-Cola, ANZ, Nestle, and Facebook, among others.
In 2021, Proud to Be Us Laos and UNDP are partnering to promote D&I in the workplace in Lao PDR, and work closely with businesses to translate the global UN Standards of Conduct into local action. This partnership will build on the recent Study and Manual on Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace undertaken by Proud to Be Us Laos and the Faculty of Law and Political Science of the National University of Laos and aims to contribute to the national dialogue on ending discrimination faced by LGBTI people, and the business case in ensuring that LGBTI people have equal opportunities in employment and enjoy a safe, inclusive and empowering working environment.
In June every year, the world celebrates Pride Month to create awareness on the challenges faced in protecting the rights of LGBTI persons, including here in Lao PDR. In 2021, Lao businesses have already taken the lead in promoting D&I in their corporate messaging, including Lao Airlines and Dao Coffee. Although celebrated only over one month, Pride Month is a reminder of the year-round work needed to accelerate the legal, institutional and social changes to reach zero discrimination of LGBTI people in the workplace – and in doing so building a more prosperous Lao PDR where no one is left behind as the country continues to move forward.
Op-Ed co-authored by:
Mr. Anan Bouapha, Founder and President of the Proud to Be Us Laos
Ms. Catherine Phuong, UNDP Lao PDR Deputy Resident Representative
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.