Labour Law amendments include ban on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation

New amendments to the Labour Law came into force on 25 October 2006. The amendments clarify the provision of the law on the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; this provision was questioned by the state president in June 2006. The amendments also introduce a number of changes put forward by the Latvian Employers’ Confederation and the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia. Among other matters, these modifications increase protection against unfavourable treatment, ease the rules on representation in industry agreements and general agreements, prohibit the asking of questions relating to pregnancy in job interviews, extend the maximum term of a fixed-term employment contract, set a limit on dismissal periods and stipulate payment for justified absence from work.

After a second debate, on 21 September 2006, Latvia’s parliament adopted amendments to the Labour Law. The amendments were first drafted over one year ago. Some of these provisions were adopted by parliament on 15 June 2006, but were rejected by the state President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who has the exclusive right to proclaim adopted laws. The reason for the rejection was the unclear formulation of the provision of Article 7 of the Labour Law on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation (LV0608039I).

Scope of amendments

The amendments cover a wide range of issues which are outlined under the following headings.

Extended coverage of sector agreements

Article 18 of the Labour Law had stipulated that if the members of an employer organisation employ over 60% of employees in a given sector, a general agreement between the employer organisation and the employees’ trade union is binding on all employers in the sector, and therefore applies to all employees employed in these companies. However, on the recommendation of the Latvian Employers’ Confederation (Latvijas Darba Deveju konfederacija, LDDK) and the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia (Latvijas Brivo Arodbiedribu savieniba, LBAS), the representation quota has now been reduced to 50%.

According to the Ministry of Welfare (Labklajibas ministrija, LM) Labour Department Director, Ineta Tare, this issue is particularly important for smaller employer organisations, as it means that their general agreements can now be applied to the whole sector.

Moreover, the law states that if a general agreement on the minimum wage is concluded in a sector, this shall be published in the newspaper Latvijas Vestnesis and become binding on the entire sector. The LM forecasts that, in this way, self-regulation of the minimum wage could be achieved and it would be possible to phase out the state-mandated minimum wage.

Employers’ questions about pregnancy banned

Several EU directives apply in relation to pregnancy and maternity matters, most notably Directive 2002/73/EC amending Council Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions; and also Directive 92/85/EEC on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health at work of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding. In accordance with the EU directives, the Latvian Labour Law amendments prohibit any questions pertaining to pregnancy in job interviews.

Employers have greeted these amendments with some reservations. Even if a woman insists on working in a place that is harmful to her health and that of her expected child, the employer does not have the right to employ the woman, although the employer may have no means of knowing initially whether the woman is pregnant. Thus, the employer may find it difficult or impossible to observe its obligations towards pregnant women, as set out in the Worker Protection Law and the Labour Law.

Fixed-term contract period extended

The new version of Article 45 of the Labour Law stipulates that the term of an employment contract concluded for a fixed period may be three years; previously, the maximum was two years including term extension.

Suspension period stipulated

Until the recent amendments, the Labour Law did not set restrictions on the period of time during which an employee may be suspended from work, for example while a disciplinary matter is being investigated. During suspension periods, employees do not receive payment and cannot enter other employment relations. On the other hand, sometimes an employer must reinstate an employee in his/her job and pay compensation for the entire period of suspension. After prolonged negotiations, employers and trade unions agreed that the suspension period may not be longer than three months.

Trade unions must announce decision on dismissals

Article 110 of the law had stipulated that, in the event of the dismissal of a trade union member, the union must inform the employer whether the union accepts or rejects the decision not later than one week of the employer giving the notice; however, the law did not state how to interpret a situation where a union does not give a response. The amendment qualifies this issue: if the trade union has not informed the employer of its decision within one week, it shall be considered that the union agrees with the employer’s termination of employment.

Other items raised

The amendments also address the controversial provision on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; increase protection against unfavourable treatment; establish a shorter dismissal period if an employee is unable to work due to a health condition; stipulate that an employer is obliged to inform the State Employment Agency (Nodarbinatibas Valsts agentura, NVA) not later than one month in advance in the event of reductions in staff numbers; and make other provisions.

The amendments to the Labour Law came into force on 25 October 2006.

Commentary

Since its adoption in 2001, the Labour Law has been changed a number of times, on average once a year. The amendments have been made in line with the adoption of EU directives or on the recommendation of employer organisations and trade unions, in order to stimulate the business environment and reduce the number of disputes in the practice of applying the law’s provisions.

All amendments are agreed by the employer organisations and trade unions, and the final versions are usually produced after heated discussions. Such debate reveals the different views held by employers and unions on the flexibility of industrial relations in Latvia. Employers consider the industrial relations framework to be inflexible, while the trade unions believe that it is sufficiently liberal. Amendments are usually proposed by employers who are attempting to align Latvia’s labour laws with ‘flexicurity’ principles, combining flexibility and security for employees.

Raita Karnite, Institute of Economics, Latvian Academy of Sciences

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