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Dark side of 'White' milk: dairy producer's workplace safety questioned

In a span of a couple of months, four employees of the "Tukuma piens" dairy producer company, more commonly known under the brand "Baltais" ("White"), have got serious injuries. Latvian Television's "Forbidden Method", aired February 26, checked concerns about the employer's lax attitude to safety and employee health.


Matīss is 19. He has recently lost four fingers. He wants to become a programmer but now has to think how to live essentially without a hand.

He still hopes his former job at Tukuma Piens will pay some compensation for the fingers lost at work, which it had promised. But now the company is not going to do it, Ints Poškus, director of Tukuma Piens, says – Matīss himself is to blame. Poškus said this had also been said by the State Labor Inspectorate.

The accident with Matīss occurred at about midnight on October 17 last year - after a workday of about 15 hours.

“I had to have a day off that day, I was deprived of my holiday, and had to go to work,” recalled Matīss. He said there were two shifts working on other equipment, “but we had only one shift and could work until one or two at night.”

He worked on a curd mixer with the last portion left after which the mixing machine had to be cleaned. Sharp blades spin inside the machine, which should be switched to slow mode at the time of cleaning, but Matīss said its switch button had long been out of action.

His colleague cleaned the machine, and Matīss did the same, but his fingers hit the inside.

After the incident, one of the management also urged him not to say he had been working for 15 hours, but he did not listen to it.

However, the Labor Inspectorate concluded the youngster had himself breached safety instructions at work. But the inspection opinion also shows that it had not been verified how safe the machine was or whether it was damaged - whether it was operating the slow sharp blade cutting mode.

Matīss also said his cut fingers were washed with water immediately after the incident, which should not be done. In such cases, the torn fingers should be wrapped in dry clean fabric, placed in waterproof packaging, and placed in a container with water and ice to keep them cool but not frozen. Everyone who has undergone first aid courses should know this, and Tukuma Piens employees have such certificates - but on that October evening, they did the wrong thing.

Microsurgeons tried, fingers were reattached, but they didn't connect. Would it have been different if they hadn't washed their fingers, is not known. The Labor Inspectorate did not assess how properly first aid was given.

The responsibility of the employer in relation to Matīss's case is now being investigated by the State Police, a case regarding non-compliance with labor protection regulations.


What happened to Matīss is not the only such incident in the company recently. On December 7 last year, at Tukuma Piens, a worker from Ukraine suffered a work injury at eight o'clock in the morning, a fracture in her right hand. This year, on the night of January 27-28, another Ukrainian had her finger ripped off, and on February 14 another victim had his fingers amputated.

Ukrainian Claudia, who broke her hand in the factory, has now returned home. But before that, she told LTV that she came for a job advert, staff for “Tukuma Piens” were wanted by a proxy firm.

Her promised salary above a thousand euros, which compared to her then 60 euros monthly income, was huge money. She was told that she could travel to Latvia as a refugee and work.

Claudia said the job briefing was to give them information in Russian, learn for about three hours, then answer questions and sign off. She first started working on a curd machine, where she was trained by other colleagues. But one day she was assigned to another machine.

“She tells me I [have to go] to chocolate today.” But I say I'm not going there because I don't know anything there. I just saw that machine, but I don't know the process itself. She tells me you'll be fine. […] Brought a Latvian girl and says she'll show you. She showed me, she told me in Latvian, she understood one word in Russian herself, and I said I didn't understand. And she went to do her job,” said Claudia.

Although she did not understand the work process, she was persuaded to work. She had to carry chocolate and pour it in the machine, and keep the workplace clean.

"Under the machine where the products had fallen, I decided to pick them up. I crawled in and my hand got in there,” Claudia said. She was then hit on the palm of her hand by the press.

“I didn't know that press was going under the machine and it squished my hand. I realized it was going to be broken. Yes, there's metal and two round irons. They pierced me, there were holes. They may not be that deep, but there was blood. I got [out], terrified,” Claudia said.

Claudia was taken to Tukums Polyclinic but was persuaded her not to tell the doctors the accident happened at work. If this case were recorded as an occupational injury, Latvia would pay the benefit no matter how long she worked. But if the injury is not at work, then a sick leave is drawn up. You must have worked for no less than three months over a six-month period to get sick leave, but Claudia hadn't worked that long.

She asked for support from a company representative, Jana who took her to the hospital herself and knew the injury had been sustained at work. But she got the answer that she was guilty that she put her hand under the press because she had signed job security briefings.

The proxy firm promised Claudia to find some work she could do with her left hand but sent her to the same “Tukuma Piens” in the final, where Jana told her she didn't have a suitable job.

The Labor Inspectorate was notified of the case by the broadcast team, after which the Inspectorate contacted Claudia and an inspection was launched. The inspectorate said there could be an administrative penalty for hiding a job injury.

Long workdays

The broadcast also decided to find out how Ukrainian workers can be promised a salary of €1,000 by a proxy firm if smaller wages appear in the job advertisements of “Tukuma Piens” itself.

Irina Miļiutina, owner of Recruitment Solutions Ltd.,said that cooperation with “Tukuma Piens” was very good: “They're all formally people, everything officially, and we rent them out. [...] You pay €10 an hour and everything else doesn't apply to you. Sick leaves, leave - not applicable at all.”

The salary of the employee is paid by her, withdrawing EUR 100 per bed. And people from Ukraine in “Tukuma Piens” want to work a lot so they can earn, Irina said.

“We have 41 people there now and four more will come. We have people working about 300 hours right now, that's on average a month. [...] They are in the mood to work a shift of 12 hours for 25 days a month,“ the firm's owner said.

For example, for Claudia, the hourly rate was 4.50 euros gross, and if you work 300 hours a month, the pay is a total of 1,350 euros before tax, just over 1,000 euros after tax.

Intermediary companies that lease employees to companies are a perfectly legal business model, and these days it is becoming more common, said Andris Bite, President of the Employers' Confederation of Latvia. But the proxy also has to follow the laws. The Latvian Labour Law determines the permissible amount of overtime on average is not more than 8 per week, but in the case of 300 hours that comes down to even 20 overtime per week.

Irina said not to worry: accountants put things in order, and the staff kept quiet.

“They want, they can work, they'll be instructed, they'll never say they work a lot, they'll never betray you, they won't talk about it. The employment contract tells us that we do not disclose any secrets,” Irina said.

Ints Poskus, director of “Tukuma Piens,” when asked about such long workdays, replied: “Nobody works 300 hours or more. Not possible. […] You're told by Irina? 300 hours is not even a question at all, it's nonsense [...]. See, then there may be these risks with accidents.”


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