Ambulance drivers threaten strike
In mid-April 2004, Latvian ambulance drivers made demands for improved working conditions and pay, supported by their trade unions, and threatened a strike if their claims are not met.
The ambulance service is affected by a lack of funding in the same way as the Latvian healthcare system as a whole. The ambulance service is provided by municipal transport services, but drivers’ wages are paid from the healthcare budget and - given the general lack of money for health - are very low. The contrast between the high level of risk in the work of ambulance drivers and their low wages has prompted them to make tough demands for improved working conditions to the government, and to call on trade unions to push forward these demands. In mid-April 2004, a meeting was held between about 50 drivers and the Latvian Health and Social Care Workers Trade Union (Latvijas Veselibas aprupes un socialo darbinieku arodbiedriba, LVSADA). At the meeting, the drivers announced that they were prepared to strike if their demands for improved working conditions are not met in the near future. The drivers are calling for: 'operational service' status to be granted not just to the vehicles but also to the personnel; wage increases; accident insurance for all workers; vaccination against hepatitis and other infectious diseases; and new and better vehicles. LVSADA considers the drivers' demands to be justified.
The drivers have pointed to several alleged breaches of labour laws and called for reasonable work schedules. They claim that, due to their low wages, drivers are forced to take several jobs in order to be able to provide for their families, while they cannot take their annual leave because of a shortage of drivers to replace them. The drivers state that they earn EUR 135 per month after tax on average, with rates varying between EUR 120 and EUR 220 in different parts of the country. In 2003, the average monthly net wage was EUR 210 across the economy, EUR 240 in the public sector and EUR 190 in the public healthcare sector. Thus, although their work is risky, ambulance drivers earn 35% less than the average national monthly wage and 30% less than the average in the public healthcare sector. Drivers’ wages have not risen since the mid-1990s, despite the fact that the economic situation in the country has improved since that time and inflation has risen.
Mārtiņš Šics, the director of the Disaster Medical Centre (Katastrofu Medicīnas Centrs, KMC), told the press that, even including all possible bonuses, KMC drivers cannot earn more than EUR 225 per month, which is the set maximum sum for one month of full-time shifts plus bonuses. The drivers want to receive a gross wage of not less than EUR 360 per month.
The drivers also state that worn out and unsafe equipment threatens their work safety. They are concerned that 'operational service' status has been granted to the ambulances, but no to the personnel. Award of operational service status would give the drivers additional social benefits.
The Riga City Council motor pool, which provides the ambulance service in the capital, is looking for ways to increase drivers’ wages, but cannot promise that this will happen in 2004. The Council has sought to head off the strike by informing the drivers about measures intended to improve their working conditions. The management of the motor pool has promised to start talks on increasing the drivers’ wages with the State Compulsory Health Insurance Health Agency (Veselības Obligātās apdrošināšanas Valsts aģentūra, VOAVA). However, no specific solutions have been offered to the drivers.
The Operational and Medical Transport Trade Union (Operativa un mediciniska transporta arodbiedriba) is also unhappy with the situation. Its leader, Ervīns Kubuliņš, has emphasised that if funds for improving the drivers’ working conditions are not found, the drivers will strike or quit their jobs. The union has forwarded the drivers’ strike demands to the Riga City Council, the Ministry of Health and the VOAVA. If an answer is not received within one month, a strike may follow. A final decision on an ambulance drivers’ strike has not yet been made. There are around 1,000 ambulance drivers in Latvia. Drivers at KMC are also preparing to join any strike.