Teachers, nurses face widespread cuts

  • 2009-04-29
  • By Kate McIntosh

RIGA - Latvian health and education workers are bracing for radical cuts following an extraordinary meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers on April 24 that revealed up to 4,000 teachers could be out of work by Sept. 1.

Education and Science Minister Tatjana Koke from the Union of Greens and Farmers confirmed between 2,000 and 4,000 teachers could be out of work as of Sept. 1 this year.
School closures have also been confirmed, but Koke would not comment on how many students will find their schools closed come Sept. 1, saying the decision rested with local governments.
Public sector employees across the board are facing hefty wage cuts between 20 and 40 percent as Latvia struggles to trim its budget to meet the requirements of a 7.5 billion euro bailout package brokered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Following the meeting Health Minister Ivars Eglitis of the People's Party also announced salaries to health care sector workers could be slashed by 20 percent instead of the previously planned 10 percent.
The planned salary cuts come as a huge blow to Latvia's health and education workers, who remain among the lowest paid in the European Union.

According to a dramatic report on health care reform, just 24 hospitals out of the current 59 operating in Latvia will remain open in 2013.
Starting this year, the number of beds in hospitals will also be gradually reduced.
However, hospital closures are not expected to come before 2010.
Latvijas Masu Asociacija (Latvian Nurses Association) president Jolanta Zalite said aspects of the government's proposed health care reforms, including reductions to the patient to nurse ratio, were encouraging.

However, there are fears continued uncertainty surrounding the nature of the reforms could erode service levels.
Zalite said positive developments in the sector in the past two years, as salaries and health care management improved, had resulted in some 200 to 300 former health care workers returning to the profession per year in both 2007 and 2008.

She said the association feared ongoing instability and financing issues in the sector could undo previous advances made in the country's health care system.
Nurses in Latvia earn an average 300 lats per month and have significantly higher workloads then their counterparts in other EU states.
The current patient to nurse ratio stands at about 20-1 in Latvia. The number is even higher in psychiatric and social care institutions, where the patient to nurse ratios can sometimes reach 150-1.

Disappointingly, nurse's expertise had largely been ignored in the development of health care policy and best practice despite their frontline role in the health care system.
She highlighted the need to strengthen the primary health care sector as crucial to reducing costs and improving the level of services in the sector.

"It's sad to say nurses' voices are not strong and not listened too. We are a body of health care professionals who are much closer to the patient's needs. We are ready to support the Ministry of Health if our government will choose to use our resources; our proposals and vision about how things can be improved for some good," she said.
Despite some misgivings, Zalite said nurses understood the necessity for the government's tough spending cuts and for this reason had decided against strike action against salary cuts.
"Nurses are very patriotic. We understand Latvia is in a very hard situation and the need to minimize expenses," she said.

Some 10,000 education and science workers took to the streets of Riga on April 2 to demand better working conditions and protest against cuts in education spending, which they say will result in the dumbing down of future generations.
Koke repeatedly underlined that the teachers who will lose their jobs will be retrained using European Union structural funds financing.
Education and student union organizations have vowed to fight the government's reforms, which include closures and funding cuts to vocational schools, scientific institutes, state universities and colleges.

The Education and Science Ministry's 2009-2011 report on education and science policy and structural changes in 2009-2011 emphasizes that funds earmarked for subsidies, along with all functions not dealing specifically with the work of general education institutions will be transferred to local governments.

Local governments will be responsible for paying earmarked subsidies for teachers' salaries, buying textbooks and training teachers.
 Koke said greater emphasis will be laid on vocational education opportunities in schools, and some classes will be taught electronically.
"In order to realize the structural changes, it is vital for the government and ministries to work together in this," said Koke.
"When the municipalities realize how much money there is for teachers, then they'll understand," she said.

Under the government's education reforms, the requirements for enrollment at high schools will be increased and the number of students per one teacher will also be raised.
In higher education, the system of curricula licensing will be revised, and the number of students receiving scholarships will be decreased, although support will be provided for students from disadvantaged families.