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Sengchanh is improving OSH on Laos coffee plantations

The Vice President of the Lao Coffee Association now applies the OSH lessons he learned during the Vision Zero Fund training course to his daily life in Champasak province.

“I am more cautious of possible risks of accidents.”

“I have even applied occupational safety and health knowledge to my daily life. For example, I store knives properly in my kitchen, because I know that if an accident happens, it will waste my time and money and could lead to injuries or disability.”

Sengchanh Khammountha is the 52-year-old Vice President of the Lao Coffee Association. He is thoughtful and careful – about his health, work, and words.

He was born in Pak Lay, in Sainyabuli province, which sits on the Mekong River in the western part of the country. When he was 18, he moved to Vientiane, the capital, with its broad boulevards, tree-lined streets, and notable shrines. At 24, he moved to Savannakhet, on the border with Thailand, and got married there. Finally, in 1999, he moved to Champasak province in the southwest, where he lives now.

His days begin at 6 a.m. with exercise and breakfast. He spends time with his wife and three children before driving to his office in Pakse.

But one day, instead of going to work as usual, he met with the Vision Zero Fund team and members of the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They had a proposal for him: Would he like to attend training sessions for employers and workers on occupational safety and health?

“I was very interested in the Vision Zero Fund from the first meeting,” he said. “My coffee association had observed that farmers lacked knowledge on OSH, so I wanted to be a part of it.”

Over the next few months, his initial interest turned into a life-changing experience.

Coffee in Laos

But, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the government began to encourage private sector investment and export. Today, coffee is one of Laos’ most valuable agricultural commodities. In fact, despite a general slowdown of the global coffee market, Laos saw a 22% increase in export volume from 2016 to 2018.

Production is best in the southern part of the country, in the Bolaven plateau. The region is known for being conducive to coffee cultivation, due to its high elevation, volcanic red soil, even rainfall distribution, and cool temperatures. 

Arabica beans grown there are known for their medium body and a combination of mild citrus and floral tones. Its Robusta beans are planted at unusually high altitudes, resulting in unique characteristics (good body, neutral characteristics, clean tasting) that make it popular in the global coffee market.

Coffee workers in the process of checking the quality of coffee beans.

Mr. Sengchanh and coffee cooperative members validate OSH training material.

Mr. Sengchanh in his office with his team.

Coffee has been produced in Laos for more than a century.

Who grows coffee?

The rest of the coffee farms are owned by smallholders. An estimated 24,000 families are involved in coffee farming. Tasks are shared between women and men, with women more active in harvesting activities.

Six cooperatives on the Bolaven plateau are members of the Lao Coffee Association, comprising 3,450 households. That’s about 14% of all smallholders on the Bolaven plateau. Members have contracts with the cooperatives to which they sell the coffee they produce for export to Vietnam (76%), followed by Europe, Japan, and the United States.

The supply chain structure is complex and depends on a wide range of factors. In Champasak, the coffee value chain system includes: cultivation, consolidation, primary processing to obtain green coffee, green beans processing, and export or distribution in the domestic market. Roasting, grinding, branding, and packaging are done mainly in importing countries.

In Champasak province, plantations account for about 30% of the land under coffee cultivation.

“As a result of VZF Lao PDR, both employers and workers are more knowledgeable about OSH and know how to prevent accidents before they happen.”

In Laos, Vision Zero Fund became a multi-stakeholder development cooperation initiative, implemented jointly with the Laos Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Lao Federation of Trade Unions.

The project focused on OSH training in the coffee and garment sectors.

Sengchanh not only learned about the importance of using tools and equipment properly, he learned how to pass on that information to a wider audience. Farmers now receive informational flyers with useful tips and advice.

After the training, he noticed that farmers were starting to protect themselves from potential accidents on coffee farms. For example, they know how to use grass-cutting machines properly, they keep their tools well-organized at home, and they store chemicals safely. 

“I noticed the government support for the project, and how it worked closely with the private sector to reduce OSH risks.”

Improving OSH across the supply chain

Although Sengchanh has never personally been injured in the workplace, his workers have been involved in accidents. In 2009, a worker was using a grass cutter when the blade broke and hit his arm and leg. In another incident, workers were moving a small tractor when it rolled over their feet and hands. These two accidents caused minor injuries to those involved.

“I see OSH as a process, an action to reduce work-related accidents, injuries, and diseases that could be caused by machinery, chemicals, or animals,” Sengchanh said.

Generally, the main OSH risks in the coffee sector are:

  • Improper use of equipment and tools
  • Use of chemicals without protective equipment (for example, when farmers spray chemicals they do not always wear masks, gloves, and boots)
  • Sunlight, because farmers tend to work under the sun for a long time
  • Animals, like snakes and insects

“OSH is important because it provides information and enhances workers’ understanding of how to protect themselves from the tools, equipment, or chemicals they use. When workers know how to protect themselves, they will be in good health,” he said.

With support from Vision Zero Fund, coffee farmers and members of the employers’ organization now have a better, closer relationship. Farmers gained new knowledge and the association visits them more often for training.

VFZ Lao PDR has enhanced both employers’ and workers’ awareness of OSH.

“As an employer, I would like to see a future in which all employees are safe because they know how to protect themselves from OSH risks. I would like to see a reduction in the number of occupational accidents and deaths to zero in my province,” he said.

The Vision Zero Fund project ended in March 2021. The association planned to provide more training sessions for farmers in other provinces, but they were canceled due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, the best they could do was distribute OSH flyers to farmers.

“In the next 5 to 10 years, I would like to see all concerned sectors working together to encourage farmers to stop using chemicals. I would like to see investors paying more attention to employee safety. And I would like to see all coffee farmers and workers become members of the social security fund, as they will be protected and will receive compensation in case of injury or death,” he said.

Funding remains a major challenge for the continuation of the project. Sengchanh’s association has limited financial resources, although members would like to continue providing OSH training to coffee farmers.

Learn more

These impact stories were produced with the financial support of the European Union.