RIGA - Thousands of health care workers and teachers gathered outside the Parliament building in Riga to demand a raise in wages.
The Sept. 26 protest, organized by medical workers from all around Latvia, saw an estimated 2,500 picketers shouting, chanting and calling out ministers. About seventy police and officers of the parliamentary security service were deployed in response.
The protesters held posters with slogans like "Unfreeze the wages 's freeze the ministers," "Down with poverty," "Government, hear your people," "Let's swap the wages and then freeze them," and, on a lighter note, "Our lives are sad, but at least salaries are laughable."
A number of lawmakers came out to talk to the protesters. Parliament speaker Gundars Daudze repeatedly underlined the role of communication and cooperation between lawmakers and representatives of the health care and education systems.
"The path to progress will be much more difficult if we stand against each other," Daudze said.
Although medics and teachers voiced satisfaction that lawmakers have heard their demands, they dismissed MPs' arguments as unsubstantiated.
"They [the politicians] are sure that medics will not leave their sick patients, and they are right 's there was an idea to quit our jobs en masse one day, but we just cannot do that. We even cannot strike, because patients need us," said medical nurses at the protest.
Parliament education, culture and science committee chairman Janis Strazdins discussed wages with teachers, as well as explaining to them the serious nature of the current economic crisis. Strazdins said it is necessary to consider other viable options for long-term improvements to the education system.
The MPs' arguments, however, did not go down well with all the picketing teachers, some of whom said it was unacceptable that they had to remind officials of their promises each year.
The teachers decided to join the medical workers' demonstration after the government announced a decision to freeze their wages in 2009.
Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis refused to speculate on the possibility of increased doctors' wages, as the funding has not been found. Discussions with labor unions are also still taking place.
Godmanis did however confess that the government would have to decide on whether to increase patients' fees in order to cover skyrocketing expenses for medical utilities and supplies.
The government addressed the unions with a request to negotiate with hospital management on the possible redivision of assets in order to increase the salaries for the lowest-paid employees. "I do not have any external sources on the expense of which I could increase health care system's workers' salaries," Godmanis was quoted as saying by LETA.
Sandra Kalniete, a representative of the opposition party, was quoted as saying she admired the patience of the Latvian people, stating that in no other European country would citizens have waited so long to stage such protests.
"If there is an economic crisis in the country, everybody must pay an equal price for it, especially those who are responsible for it," Kalniete said. The teachers and medics sang cheerful Latvian folk songs together and engaged in lively debates with officials towards the end of the protest.
The chairman of the medical workers union, Valdis Keris, spoke of a previously planned two-day strike in October, saying that it is possible that it may be cancelled. The final decision regarding a medical strike will be adopted at the union council meeting on Oct. 21.
The ministry currently proposes raising doctors' monthly wages to 686 lats (976 euros), nurses' wages to 412 lats (589 euros), and wages of junior medical assistants to 274 lats (391 euros), but these amounts are still much less than requested by the trade union.