RIGA - The union of doctors and medical workers announ-ced on Sept. 18 that it has decided to sue the Latvian government over the latter's failure to implement promised wage increases.
The union said that it may also decide to call a strike if members' concerns over the proposed budget are not addressed during a second round of negotiations in October.
"We have several government documents from 2005 and 2006 which contain certain guarantees about pay increases. The problem is that the government is not going to implement those in realityâ€¦ We could take them to court over the documents, and this could eventually lead to a strike," the union's chief, Valdis Keris, told The Baltic Times.
The threat to take further action to secure better wages comes on the heels of a Sept. 13 protest that drew approximately 400 health care professionals.
He said that the union is currently evaluating its chances of winning a court battle over the issue, and that the union has already set up a strike fund and is prepared to follow through with the strike.
He stressed, however, that a strike would be a last resort option. Additionally, any strike would only cover planned services, and emergency services would remain available.
"We would strike very unhappily, as patients are not our enemies. This may, however, be the final possibility to make the government alert to what the situation will be like in a few years if these trends continue. A patient may have to wait one or two days for service, but in one or two years they may have to wait months. There will be nobody to help them," Keris said.
The situation in Latvia's health care industry is increasingly dire. Doctors, nurses and other medical workers are leaving the field in droves, Keris said. The wages are so low that many health care professionals are choosing to travel to Western Europe where they could receive significantly higher wages. Many of those who do not leave the country are tempted to use their higher education to break into other fields that offer more pay.
The union has called on the government to base the size of medics' salaries on the average monthly salary in Latvia's economy, so that their pay would amount to twice the average salary by 2009.
The government seems unprepared for any drastic action that the union may decide to take. The Finance Ministry and the Cabinet of Ministers referred questions about the budget to each other, and neither institution could produce a definitive response to the complaints.
A representative of the Cabinet of Ministers said that the issue may be discussed during a Sept. 24 meeting.
Keris noted that the union is supported, at least in theory, by the Ministry of Health. He said that the ministry acknowledges that their arguments are fair but simply does not have a budget big enough to meet their demands.
The doctors and medical workers union is prepared to follow the issue through to the end, even if it means turning to the European Union.
"What we are fighting for is the quality, price and availability of medical services. If we would like to have good medical services we need people who are ready to work, and we have to have good salaries for them. This was the conclusion from negotiations at the EU level, and this is what we need to see here," Keris said.