Employers oppose stringent language requirements

Since the spring of 2008, the Employer’s Confederation of Latvia has been fighting attempts by the government to increase liability for violations of the use of the national language by means of administrative legislation. The amendments to the Administrative Offences Code proposed by the Ministry of Justice extend restrictions for the use of foreign languages in the public domain and the range of persons for whom higher language proficiency requirements have been set.

Need for language protection

Protection of the Latvian language is aimed at both strengthening the national identity and preserving cultural values. This explains the rigorous legislation regulating language use in Latvia. Compliance with the language use legislation is supervised and controlled by the State Language Centre (Valsts valodas centrs, VVC).

On the other hand, making the requirements for language use too strict may hamper business development in the country. With increasing integration of the Latvian national economy in the European Union (EU) and due to globalisation, literal compliance with the language legislation standards either becomes impossible or results in large costs.

Government proposes stricter language requirements

The Republic of Latvia Ministry of Justice (Tieslietu ministrija) has proposed amendments to the Administrative Offences Code (AOC), which specify or adjust liability for violations with regard to the use of the national language in order to prevent shortcomings in the use of the Latvian language by the public. In addition, the draft law provides for the option of imposing a warning as a form of penalty for less significant offences committed by officials and other persons. Moreover, it specifies the competence of the VVC officials such that the warning as an administrative penalty may be imposed by the head and inspectors of the VVC Control Department.

Employers see threat in amendments to law

The Employers’ Confederation of Latvia (Latvijas Darba devēju konfederācija, LDDK) severely criticises the government’s proposed amendments to the AOC. LDDK argues that the amendments are absurd and inadequate, and that they do not comply with good administration principles, as well as ignoring the fact that Latvia is an EU Member State. The employers believe that the language legislation already in use prevents efficient communication.

Having examined the legislative acts accompanying the amendments, the employers realised that the Ministry of Justice has expanded the range of persons for whom higher language requirements have been set. This amendment was introduced due to the fact that the list of ‘professions and positions in direct connection with consumers, or workers whose duties involve document management’ is broad. Employers are alarmed by the fact that higher language requirements have been proposed for managers and specialists, which may affect the attraction of qualified foreign specialists.

Thus, employers have started to campaign for the removal of any unreasonable standards from the government’s proposal.

Trade union position

In general, trade unions support the employers’ initiatives in this regard if consumers’ rights regarding access to services and information are not violated. According to the trade unions, the existing language legislation secures sufficient use of the national language. Thus, they see no serious need for amendments in this respect. If such amendments are introduced, customers’ rights should not be affected. Trade unions agree that practices in relation to language use should not be exaggerated. For instance, it is not necessary to require high-level language skills among engineers or managers who do not have to maintain direct communication with customers.

Commentary

Those responsible for developing the language legislation have so far basically considered regulation of the use of the Latvian and Russian languages. The legislation adopted for this purpose sometimes unfairly discriminates against users of the Russian language and is currently mainly used to limit the use of the Russian language. Due to the rise in the number of multinational companies operating in Latvia, an increasing proportion of business people find themselves in conflict with the language legislation. More and more frequently, the media publish information about penalties imposed for language use violations. For example, in March 2008, four bus drivers were penalised for language law violations, because they ‘did not use the state language within the necessary scope’ when performing their professional duties. However, many more unreported cases occur, such as agreements reached without translations or business meetings held in foreign languages. It is clear that compliance with the language legislation will incur high costs both for business people and the state authorities who will carry out control measures. Therefore, the employers’ concern regarding the strengthening of the language use standards is justified.

Raita Karnite, Institute of Economics, Latvian Academy of Sciences

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