RIGA - Close to 1,000 teachers gathered outside the Cabinet of Ministers on Sept. 6 to demand an increase in wages, five days after school began. If a compromise is not reached soon, some in the teachers' union have threatened to strike.
"At least half of the teachers here [at the rally] are ready to go on strike tomorrow," Astrida Harbacevica, leader of the teachers' union, told the Baltic News Service.
The teachers came from cities across the country, representing Rezekne, Balvi, Cesis and Daugavpils. Demanding an increase that many claim is barely enough to live on, the pedagogues waved banners that said "save the teachers" and "we want to live, not just survive."
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and Education Minister Ina Druviete came out to address the crowd, but did not receive a warm reception. One teacher reportedly asked Kalvitis about his salary, to which he replied "we are not discussing my salary."
The Cabinet decided to allocate 33 million lats (47.5 million euros) toward raising salaries on Aug. 23, but won't implement the increase until January of next year. Meanwhile, teachers want their raises this month.
Several protestors represented the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party. Party leader Juris Bojars said the Social Democrats were trying to establish closer ties with local unions.
Teachers salaries are already some of the lowest in the nation, and after tax deductions, the proposed increase would put their income - for a single shift of 21 hours - just barely above the minimum monthly wage of 110 lats. Although many teachers work extra hours, the increase is still not substantial.
According to the Education and Science Ministry, salaries are set to increase by 40 lats a month next year. The first wage-increase will be implemented in January, and then again the following September. By 2007, another 60 lats will be added to teacher salaries, with an increase to nearly 500 lats a month by 2010.
Another meeting is scheduled for mid-September, though Kalvitis said the scheduled increases would not be changed.
Like much of the state's public sector, teachers' salaries have failed to keep up with recent inflation. According to the teachers' union, pedagogues have been receiving roughly 123 lats a month, which is close to subsistence wages and far below other public-sector jobs.
An increase in the cost of gasoline, recently sent soaring after the Hurricane Katrina disaster (see story page 1), has exacerbated the problem. Many of the country's lower earning residents struggle to live comfortably. What's more, Latvia has had the highest inflation rate in the European Union for much of this year.
Despite rapid economic development, the country remains near the bottom of the EU in GDP and wages.
Although the coalition is in the midst of budget negotiations, a number of state employees 's in addition to teachers - have complained about low salaries and staged protests. In mid-August, policemen rallied over low pay, and the medical sector has long been underpaid. As a result, many of the nation's most qualified doctors have left for higher wages elsewhere.