How trade unions help to protect workers’ rights

A survey in Latvia has looked at how trade unions work to prevent abuse of workers’ rights. It was commissioned by the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia and the results suggest there were fewer violations of labour rights at businesses where there was a trade union. However, the findings also suggest that employees have a high level of tolerance for the abuse of labour rules. Employees’ loyalty towards their work and the spread of the shadow economy were also examined.


The work environment in Latvia has been examined in a survey, Work practices and people’s understanding of job security in Latvia (in Latvian, 1.62 MB PDF), commissioned by the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia (LBAS). It was carried out by leading independent sociological research company SKDS. The survey asked respondents for their views on issues including:

  • trade union activity in companies;
  • employees’ loyalty to a company;
  • violations of workers’ rights;
  • the spread of the shadow economy.

The survey is part of the final evaluation of the European Social Fund project, ‘Practical application of labour relations and workplace safety legislation and regulation in branches and enterprises’, which LBAS began in 2008. The work received financial support from EU Structural Funds.


The survey was carried out from 12 April to 25 April 2013 and gathered responses from 1,047 participants who were all permanent residents of Latvia aged between 15 and 74. They included a special target group (n=606) of those who were currently employed in Latvia and those who had been unemployed for less than six months. The survey was conducted in all of Latvia’s regions using a stratified random sampling method.

Work environment

The research showed 26% of the respondents (n=606) said there was a trade union organisation functioning at their workplace. A higher percentage of older workers said they had a trade union at their workplace. Only 19% in the 25–34 age group said they had a union, compared with 35% in the 55–74 age group.

One notable statistic was that only 11% of respondents in the 55–74 group said they did not know or were not sure whether there was a trade union at their workplace. This figure rose to 22% of respondents in the 25–34 age group.

Women were more loyal to their place of work; 31% had worked for the same organisation for more than 10 years, compared with 17% of men. The older the employee, the longer he or she was likely to have been at the same workplace. Figures showed 28% of those in the 35–44 age group and 48% in the 55–74 age group had worked at their current or previous workplace for more than 10 years.

Loyalty to a company increased with an employee’s level of education – 13% with a basic education and 30% with higher education had worked at their current or previous workplace for more than 10 years.

Violation of labour rights at enterprises

The survey results indicated there were fewer violations of labour rights at businesses where a trade union was operating. No abuse of labour rights was reported by 66% of respondents who worked where there was a trade union, and by 49% of people who worked where there was no trade union.

Of those employed in businesses with a trade union, 11% said they had worked overtime without extra pay, compared with 20% of those employed in enterprises without a trade union. Similarly, 11% of respondents at businesses with a trade union said their work environment had worsened, compared to 17% working at businesses without a union.

According to 17% of respondents, the most common violation of labour rights was ‘unpredictable and frequent changes in the work schedule’. However, 54% said they did not regard this as a violation of their labour rights.

On the whole, the survey results suggest that workers and employees have a large degree of tolerance for the abuse of labour rules. Even when people felt certain situations were a violation of their labour rights, 49% said they did not take any action. This, they said, was either because they saw the situation as ‘insoluble’, or because they did not regard it as serious or significant enough to warrant action. However, the 55% who did take action achieved favourable results.

The survey results show that 50% of respondents personally know someone who is working without a labour contract and/or who receives part or all of their wages without paying tax. One reason given for this is that wages from which taxes are deducted are too low. Respondents also say taxes and social security contributions are too high.

Respondents also acknowledge that working in the shadow economy poses risks, such as not receiving a salary at all (67%) or not having accident or health insurance (61%). Another risk highlighted by 16% of respondents, was that working conditions in the shadow economy tended to be harder, or worse, than in a regular job.


Trade unions are not popular among young people in Latvia, and this poses the risk that their working environment could worsen. This is exacerbated by the fact that employees in Latvia are tolerant, and the majority take it for granted that violations of labour rights are to be expected.

This attitude is probably due to inadequate knowledge about employment law and regulations, and a lack of information about examples of best practice – spheres in which trade unions play a significant role.

Linda Romele, EPC Ltd

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