Healthcare workers reject recessionary cutbacks

The Latvian Health and Social Care Workers’ Trade Union has remained active through the economic downturn. It arranged a one-day strike among healthcare workers on 26 September 2008, a two-day strike on 30–31 October 2008 and warned the government in January 2009 of the health risks of further budget cuts. Although the industrial action did not lead to direct results, the National Tripartite Cooperation Council has endorsed the trade union’s position.

Background

Discussions on wages in the healthcare sector started in the middle of the 1990s. Since 2004, healthcare workers have been arguing for an increase in wages and improved working conditions through the industrial mechanisms at their disposal. On several occasions, the Latvian Health and Social Care Workers’ Trade Union (Latvijas Veselības un sociālās aprūpes darbinieku arodbiedrība, LVSADA), which assumed responsibility for this process and maintains negotiations with the government, has called on healthcare workers to strike (LV0806029I).

In 2006, LVSADA managed to agree with the government on a long-term schedule of pay increases; however, by 2007, the trade union expressed dissatisfaction with its implementation (LV0712019I).

Strike action over pay

In 2008, when Latvian economic growth slowed down, due mainly to the global economic crisis, the government announced that there was increased pressure on the state budget funds, resulting in the administration not being able to keep the previous promise of increasing the wages of healthcare workers. During negotiations between LVSADA and the Minister of Health, Ivars Eglītis, at the beginning of August 2008, the parties came to an agreement on a pay rise on 1 January 2009 for the members of emergency teams. No agreement was reached on a wage increase for healthcare workers in general. However, the government promised to raise the wages of healthcare workers according to the inflation rate, or 10%, in 2009.

On 19 August 2008, the Council of LVSADA decided to arrange a one-day token strike of healthcare workers for 26 September 2008. On the same day, a picket was also scheduled to take place near the parliament (Saeima) building; this demonstration gathered 2,000 workers. The strike participants demanded that the forecast national average wage in 2007 of €553 a month, which was approved on 14 August 2007, should be retroactively applied to the calculation of the wages of healthcare workers from 1 January 2008.

On 21 October 2008, after long discussions, the Council of LVSADA decided that healthcare and medical workers should go on strike on 30–31 October. Overall, 23 organisations with a total of 1,022 members – out of the existing 87 trade union organisations with about 16,000 members – participated in the two-day strike.

Medical workers demanded that their wages should be calculated for the period 2009–2014 on the basis of actual increases in the national average wage, rather than according to national average wage forecasts that had been carried out in 2006. The discrepancy had arisen because the actual increase is larger than the forecast increase.

Budgetary cutbacks

At the end of 2008, the Latvian government achieved an agreement on foreign financial support for stabilising the national economy. For its part, Latvia agreed to implement strict fiscal policy, including cutting the state budget expenditure – which will inevitably affect the healthcare sector.

On 21 January 2009, LVSADA wrote a public letter to Latvia’s parliament and government warning that further budget cuts in the healthcare sector would endanger the availability of healthcare services.

On 7 April 2009, the government rejected the proposal of Minister Eglītis to avoid reducing wages in the healthcare sector, as is planned in the cost-cutting policy. The Minister of Finance, Einars Repše, stated that the health sector is not the only area protesting about the decrease in financing and that the government cannot afford any exceptions. LVSADA condemned that decision and highlights that the fact that it was made on World Health Day raises the suspicion that human life is not a priority for the government leaders.

A week later, on 15 April 2009, the National Tripartite Cooperation Council (Nacionālās trīspusējās sadarbības padome, NTSP) decided to recommend that the government should stop further cuts in healthcare financing. LVSADA is satisfied with this decision and has called on the government to respect the NTSP recommendation. However, on 17 June 2009, Minister Eglītis resigned in protest over the government cutbacks in healthcare.

Commentary

From an industrial relations perspective, healthcare is the most problematic area in the health and social work sector in Latvia. A high professional level and good technical facilities for medical treatment stand in stark contrast with the unreasonably low wages of medical staff and service personnel. Budgetary constraints restrict the development of the sector, affect the quality of services and encourage the emigration of healthcare workers who are looking for better paid jobs. The healthcare workers’ demands are fair, but the state funds may be insufficient to fulfil them. The current economic recession and cuts in state budget expenditure will prolong the period of discussions and industrial action in the healthcare sector.

Raita Karnite, Institute of Economics, Latvian Academy of Sciences

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