Latvia has the highest level of youth unemployment among Baltic States says Natalja Mickevica, Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia Representative of Workers Delegate
(R) Ms. Natalja Mickevica, Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia Representative of Workers Delegate in Exclusive Interview Session with (L) Editor in Chief Mr. Hatef Mokhtar of The Oslo Times.
First of all, The Oslo Times (TOT) is honoured and privileged to be able to hold this session with you. We greatly appreciate your finding time for us within your busy schedule.
Our first question to you is:
TOT: The 9th European Regional Meeting of the ILO was held this month in Oslo, Norway.
From the variety of topics discussed in the conference sessions, which ones do you consider are particularly relevant to Latvia and in what way?
Natalja Mickevica: In my opinion, all the topics concerning employment policy design, in particular effective policies regarding youth employment, are relevant for Latvia. Despite the fact that we are going out of crisis and its consequences, the level of unemployment in Latvia is still high – 11%, in particular youth unemployment which makes 28% of registered unemployed persons. Just as Director General stressed in his report, we as trade unions are also concerned about the risk of the lost generation also taking into account the high emigration of young persons to other states.
TOT: What is the current labour and workforce situation in Latvia and how does it compare to conditions in other European countries?
Natalja Mickevica: From the outset Latvia has good labour legislative acts. In general Labour Law and other relevant legislative instruments implement all binding European secondary legislative acts and ILO conventions. However, one of the biggest challenges of the employment in Latvia is the high level of unregistered unemployment. It makes up to 30 % of the employment. There are different reasons for that, starting with low wages in Latvia (Latvia has the third lowest minimum wage level in Europe followed by Romania and Bulgaria) and high labour taxation. As a result workers are often unprotected despite “correct” and harmonized labour legislative acts.
Comparing to other countries Latvia has a relatively well established tripartite cooperation mechanism through the National Tripartite Cooperation Council. However, the sectoral social dialogue is weak, as there is only one erga omnes collective agreement signed in the sector of Railway transport. Despite the fact that legislative acts provide all opportunities to conclude collective agreements also at sectoral level, there are drawbacks in the practical realisation.
TOT: The ILO sustains a variety of causes that promote social justice as means of achieving sustainable global peace. These include employment regulations, equal rights and protection, provision for old age and numerous other principles. To what extent are these applied in Latvia and what measures are taken to safeguard the precision and equity of the system?
Natalja Mickevica: In general Latvia strives to cover all the inherent areas of social justice. However, taking into account the impact of the recent crisis many issues had limited applicability. Some social protection items within the austerity measures, for instance, pension benefits, child care leave benefits, wages and social guarantees for workers in the public sector were reduced or a ceiling was imposed on their application to meet the requirements of budget deficit. With regard to pension benefits this limitation was confirmed to be in violation with the Constitution of Latvia and cancelled by the Constitutional court.
Currently, Latvia is considered to be a good case practice country that went through the economic crisis and applied the relevant austerity measures. We are looking forward for the social guarantees to be ensured in their full amount. Unfortunately, the social budget is in a challenging situation, which was also one of the reasons the pension age was raised in Latvia.
TOT: Youth employment is one of the main concerns at global level, as well as individually for each country. What is your opinion on the ILO programmes dealing with this matter and what steps can be followed in order to improve employment conditions for young people?
Natalja Mickevica: I think that the ILO is doing a great job drawing a lot of attention to this question. By setting youth employment as the main topic at the regional meeting and the ILO conference, the ILO encourages the governments and social partners to come up with solutions and share good case practices learning from each other.
When it comes to steps to improve youth employment, I can only reply regarding the reality of my country. Within the Baltic states Latvia has the highest level of youth unemployment compared to Lithuania and Estonia. One of the most challenging factors is the lack of jobs, especially in regions. The next factor is the gap between the demand and the supply in the labour market. It can be explained by poor labour market prognosis and lack of cooperation between universities and state institutions that are responsible for market research. Another factor is the mismatch of demand for theoretical and practical knowledge and experience with the professional preparation of young persons. In other words, young persons are not experienced and skilled enough to reach the level required by the employer.
In order to improve youth employment conditions in Latvia, it is essential to work on the overall employment improvement, namely economic growth, supported both by private and public investment and smart tax policy. Next, study programs have to be improved to align them with labour market requirements. Regular qualitative research on labour market demand and education system supply is necessary. At the same time, career planning and consultations in schools can help pupils make proper education choices and provide a sufficient range of course options to meet the demand of the employer. At last, in the view of trade unions, it is very important for Latvia to provide the youth sufficient possibilities of acquiring practical experience through targeted internships and traineeships of high quality. The internships in Latvia are provided according to education standards, but often do not match the quality level and thus do not develop young professionals. It is vital that traineeship standards are designed as soon as possible, as it will not only help to organise internships in a way that they really provide practical experience but also to prevent abuse of internships and traineeships by employers.
TOT: Health and safety regulations are crucial in a solid economic system, towards sustainability and development alike. The ILO brought to attention worrying facts and figures that speak loudly about the impact of work-related accidents; the purpose is to raise worldwide awareness and make the health and safety of workers a priority on the international agenda. What are the relevant conditions in Latvia?
Natalja Mickevica: One of the biggest concerns is of Latvian trade unions is the capacity of the State Labour Inspectorate whose budget was reduced during the time of economic crisis. The State Labour Inspectorate is responsible for controlling the application of health and safety standards that are expressively enshrined in the legislative acts. At the same time during the crisis less attention and fewer resources were devoted to the issues of health and safety in the enterprises.
TOT: In your opinion, how well established are social protection services established in your country? How do they collaborate with the government while seeing to the needs of the people?
Natalja Mickevica: In my opinion, the state provides all the basic items of social protection; however, the challenge is the amount of social protection comparing to low income and the growing public utility expenses.
TOT: Finally, given the recent Euro zone crisis, do you think the Latvian citizens will be affected in any way? What positive actions are being successfully applied for the benefit of your people, in accordance to EU and ILO principles?
Natalja Mickevica: The economic crisis in Latvia started already in 2008 and Latvian population was already significantly affected by it. Currently, the economy of Latvia is recovering after the strict austerity measures applied during and after the crisis. As a positive action in accordance to EU and ILO principles I would mention the fact that during the time of the crisis the labour law standards were not worsened, as we can see it now happening in other European countries. This is, of course, with the exception of public sector employees whose social guarantees, remuneration were significantly reduced, not to mention the reduction of the number of employees.
Thanks for sharing your views with ‘The Oslo Times’ and its readers.