Industrial relations activity in the public sector
Intensive social reforms in Latvia have resulted in the implementation of social legislation based on innovative principles and providing a wide spectrum of rights in the field of industrial relations. However, so far, the rights granted are not properly used and industrial relations activity is still low. Surprisingly, the activation of industrial relations has started with rather radical measures in the public sector. This feature analyses recent developments in industrial relations in the public sector, the reasons for the change, and the measures used.
Working conditions in Latvia
Modern social legislation has been introduced in Latvia and the necessary institutions have been established. Latvia’s Labour Law and its accompanying regulations have been harmonised with EU laws, and they even stipulate greater rights for workers than for employers. The State Labour Inspectorate (Valsts Darba inspekcija, VDI), the State Employment Agency (Nodarbinātības Valsts aģentūra, NVA), National Tripartite Cooperation Council (Nacionālās trīspusējās sadarbības padome, NTSP), and organisations representing workers and employers are all operating in Latvia.
Up to now, workers have rarely used the options provided by legislation. This passivity in the industrial relations sphere would be understandable if workers were satisfied with working conditions and wages, and if there was a high standard of living in the country. However, this is not the case: in comparison with other EU Member States, Latvia has the lowest average wages and pensions, the lowest average minimum wage and tax free threshold, the lowest standard of living, and the longest working hours. The number of workplace accidents is increasing, and there are other negative trends also.
Nonetheless, industrial action by workers is rare. People seek ways of holding down several jobs and accept poor working conditions, infringements of industrial relations and unjustified dismissals. Following accession to the European Union, many people have left Latvia to seek higher wages rather than a better job.
Industrial action in the public sector
Statistics show that wages in the public sector are consistently higher than in the private sector and are increasing more rapidly. Despite this, state sector employees have become the most active in defending their rights.
Teachers were the first to take radical measures. As a result of strike action, the teachers’ union reached agreement with the government on a plan to raise wages of workers in the education sector and to link their wages to the minimum wage. The Education and Science Workers Trade Union (Latvijas Izglītības un zinātnes darbinieku arodbiedrība, LIZDA) is monitoring implementation of the agreement, and any deviations from its provisions are met by protests in the form of collective action - strikes and pickets.
Healthcare workers organised wide ranging protests at the end of 2004 and start of 2005. These resulted in wage increases for some categories of healthcare workers, which divided the protestors. The union was able to conclude an agreement with Minister of Health Gundars Bērziņš on a framework for improving pay in the healthcare sector, and the protests came to an end.
In early 2005, workers in state museums and archives as well as librarians made complaints about their low pay levels, but the protests were defused through negotiation. In June 2005, a demand was made at the congress of the Latvian Theatre Workers’ Association (Latvijas teātru darbinieku savienība, LTDS) for the government to change its negative attitude towards the theatrical arts and to legislate for the wages of actors in professional theatres to be equal to four minimum monthly wages - currently EUR 455 per month. Workers at the Latvian National Opera (Latvijas Nacionālā Opera, LNO) were ready to go on strike, but this did not happen (LV0507101N). At a meeting in autumn 2005, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis promised that, over several years, the wages paid to cultural workers would reach EUR 850 per month, and the protests subsided.
In May and June 2005, workers in the law courts prepared to strike over their low wages. The court workers revealed plans to establish a trade union. The Minister of Justice came out in support of the court workers, but the union has still not been established. The protests by the court workers died down after meeting the Minister, who promised to make every effort to raise their wages. In July 2005, Latvia’s sworn bailiffs planned to stop working on cases where the state had absolved debt collectors from payment for the fulfillment of bailiffs’ services. These protests also failed to materialise into collective action after discussions began regarding illegalities in bailiffs’ activities.
State television employees were also unhappy about wages and financial conditions, but there protests did not lead to collective action either.
At the end of 2004, employees in the Ministry of Interior’s specialised services - police officers, border guards and firefighters - expressed dissatisfaction with their wages and the social guarantee system. Following unsuccessful negotiations with Ministry of Interior and State Police officials, police officers and firefighters used the opportunities for active protest available to them within the law, and held a picket on 16 August 2005, the day the government decided on state budget amendments (LV0508102N). The results of the picket were insignificant - the government refused to back down on the issue of raising wages, and undertook to repay social guarantee arrears to state specialised services employees only gradually over several years. The government managed to stop the protests by the state specialised services employees by generating internal conflicts, pointing out unjustified differences in wage levels for police employees and the inability of the Ministry of Interior to formulate demands and financing for them.
Public sector workers credit the existence of trade unions for the solidarity pervading their collective actions. However, individual actions are also more commonly found in the public sector. In several cases, unfairly dismissed public sector workers have won court actions for reinstatement and compensations for losses resulting from employment law infringements.
Industrial action in the private sector
Protests have not as yet begun in the private sector, except in areas with a high public sector participation (education, healthcare).
The only known protest action to take place thus far was in May 2005, when players in the Venta football club (Futbola klubs Venta) refused to train or to go onto the field of play because the payment stipulated in their contracts had not been made. In several cases where companies were shut down or saw their operations scaled back, workers protested individually but did not take collective action.
Trade unions say that the passivity of private sector workers is due to the fact that private sector workers are not organised and do not know how to defend their rights individually. Other contributing factors include fear of losing jobs, the isolation typical of people in Latvia with people relying only on themselves, poor knowledge of employment law and workers’ rights, as well as an unwillingness and inability to get involved in collective action and legal proceedings. It is hard to establish unions in private companies when neither workers nor employers are in favour.
Views of the social partners
Latvia’s Labour Law and its accompanying Industrial Disputes Law stipulates that industrial disputes should be resolved through negotiation and conciliation, but that collective action (strikes and lockouts) are permitted if reconciliation is not achieved. The mechanism for negotiation and conciliation is a reconciliation institution, while strikes are regulated by the Strike Law.
Faced with a number of possibilities, the social partners have agreed that an effort must be made to resolve industrial disputes through negotiation and conciliation. Therefore, lengthy talks, usually between unions and the government, are held before collective action is taken.
Up to now, the government has not given the protest actions due consideration. Dissatisfaction by public sector workers is currently subdued with promises or partial agreements. The government’s typical approach is to create divisions by asking the claimants to indicate which other sector’s workers should have their wages cut in order to make it possible to meet the claims.
The result of these short-term 'fixes' is that the protests resurface. In September 2005, education and scientific workers recommenced their protest actions, led by their union. It is expected that state specialised services employees will also restart collective action to ensure that their lawful rights are respected. The demands of other public sector workers have not been satisfied yet either.
Trade unions support the state sector workers and help to organise their campaigns. Union activities are stimulated by the worsening economic situation, as high inflation generates social tension. The unions are also trying to achieve their objectives by cooperating with the government in developing important documents under the auspices of social dialogue, for example the analysis of state budget priorities, developing the taxation system, and finding solutions to acute social problems. However, the unions also say that, in Latvia, social dialogue exists in words but not deeds.
In recent months, the unions have been trying to broaden concern about the problems faced by workers and society as a whole, and to unite their forces to resolve them. The Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia (Latvijas Brīvo Arodbiedrību savienība, LBAS) proposed that a protest entitled We are against poverty be held by workers and inhabitants on 1 October 2005. To explain its position, on 12 September 2005, the LBAS met with representatives of political parties and Latvian parliamentary groups, and distributed an announcement explaining the union demands and plans for further action. The LBAS anticipated that other non-governmental organisations defending social rights (the Pensioners’ Federation (Pensionāru federācija), the Student Association (Studentu apvienība), the Gender Equality Association (Dzimumu līdztiesības apvienība) and local government representatives) will joint the protest action. The campaign was expected to take place nationally.
The LBAS has set three main themes and objectives for the protest: increasing wages, broader use of taxation policies for improving the social situation of inhabitants, and increasing social guarantees.
The unions say that collective action is necessary because the government has not kept its promises; for example, it has ignored the agreement reached between the social partners on raising the minimum wage and the agreement on raising wages of workers in the education sector. The unions believe that it is time to stop fighting for their rights separately, which puts members of various professions in conflict with each other.
Employers are understanding towards the union demands and support the unions on reducing the tax burden. During the course of preparing the protest action on 1 October a meeting was to be held between representatives of the LBAS, the Latvian Employers’ Confederation (Latvijas Darba Devēju konfederācija, LDDK), the Union of Local and Regional Governments of Latvia (Latvijas Pašvaldību savienība, LPS), and political parties. (Raita Karnite, Institute of Economics, Latvian Academy of Sciences)