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Vol. 73/No. 30      August 10, 2009

Latvia: workers confront
gov’t austerity measures
LATGALE, Latvia—Concerned about precipitating a social upheaval, Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis said July 22 that the government would not make further pension cuts, which the International Monetary Fund has demanded as a condition for a loan. The government already passed legislation June 16 cutting pensions by 10 percent.

“It is really bad that all workers are being pressured down. No worker can accept what is happening now,” said Veronika Dzalbe, union president at the Nemo garment factory in Kráslava. “It is hard for me to see a future for myself and my children.” Dzalbe was also worried about discrimination against the Latgale region, the most eastern province of Latvia.

This reporter and Vija Nikitina, a meat packer from Latgale now working in Stockholm, Sweden, spoke to workers in the region.

“We have circulated a petition to demand that the government withdraw this budget,” Dzalbe said, showing us the lists with 231 signatures. The union in different plants around Latvia is circulating similar petitions, she said.

Outside the Dzirnavieks flour mill in the nearby city of Daugavpils, Nikolajs Docenko was working his last day on the job June 29 because of the new budget cuts and tax increases just adopted. His monthly wage of 200 lats was being reduced to 180 lats (1 lat = US$2.03).

Because he is a pensioner and has continued to work, his taxes will go up dramatically. “It is like working for free!” he said. So he and other pensioners, including at the Nemo garment plant and the Antaris bakery in Daugavpils, are quitting their jobs.

Many plants in Latvia closed after the country became independent in 1991 and the Soviet Union dissolved. Instead of being able to sell all the products they could produce to the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, they had to sell on the world market. The cheap energy was also cut off. In 1990 oil was bought on contract for $1 per ton, but in 1992 Latvia had to pay $110 per ton.

Before 1991, the meatpacking plant in Daugavpils, Daugavpils Galas Kombinats, employed between 1,500 and 2,000 workers. Today, there are 89 workers. “We used to slaughter 10,000 chickens a day and 1,500 pigs,” said Ivan Bajarín, one of the pensioners in Daugavpils. He had worked lifting meat in the freezer.

Several pensioners from that plant spoke to the Militant June 29, while waiting for their prescribed medicines to arrive at the small pharmacy there. Pensions range from 80 to 300 lats every month, they said. One woman said her pension of 119 lats will go down to 108. Heat and gas for her one bedroom flat is 65 lats a month and the rent is 30 lats.  
Rising medical expenses
The state used to pay 75 percent in subsidies for their prescriptions, but now it is only 50 percent, said Alla Papirno. A visit to the family doctor is one lat, to a specialist, five lats if the family doctor sends you, and otherwise it is 12 lats. Hospital stays used to be free for five days, but now only three days are covered. Daily payments for longer stays are now 12 lats. They had been five lats.

Many workers said they are working short weeks. Olegs Nikitins, who works at the Knauf plant in Riga producing construction materials, only works four days a week. If there is a special order to fill, then the workers work every day until it is done.

Included in the government’s budget proposal is another cut in wages for public employees of 20 percent. Vija Dzalbe, a teacher in the village Auleja, said her salary went down 20 percent in February and July, and will go down another 20 percent on September 1. At that time teachers will be earning the minimum wage, she said.

Vija Dzalbe did not expect much from the government, which she referred to as “the new constellation of 100 persons.” She was describing the former leaders of the People’s Front that organized the gigantic mobilizations from 1989 to 1991 in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia for independence.

The protests became an important part of the struggle by working people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union against national oppression and for democratic rights. In August 1991 Latvia and several other countries in the Soviet Union won their independence.

The Latvian organizers of the mass protests rapidly adapted to the capitalist powers that they turned to for support. Their party apparatus became financed by the oligarchs who became rich in the process of privatizing industry.

At the Nemo garment plant the present director, Igor Mensikovs, was also director when the plant was a state-owned factory in the Soviet Union. He became an owner of the plant by buying up the shares that all workers were given when the plant was privatized.

Dag Tirsén contributed to this article.
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As joblessness rises, benefits harder to get  
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