Number of guest workers in Latvia shows rapid increase

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The number of work permits issued in Latvia to foreigners has been growing steadily, reaching 9,738 until September, or almost as much as through 2018 in total, reported LTV's De facto September 9.

At the same time, Latvia has stricter employment regulations for guest workers than in Estonia and Lithuania, and this makes local employers less competitive, De facto has found.

Wages from €700 to €1,000 a month

Ziyovuddin Abdullayev (34) is a seasonal worker from Uzbekistan. This was the second summer he is in Latvia picking berries under the bilberry grower Aleksejs Fomičovs. "Last summer we came here to visit together with some friends. My neighbor was here as well, and he knew Aleksejs already. We were sitting at a cafe and he asked me if I wanted to come to Latvia for a seasonal job. I agreed to try it, and so it happened," he said.

Abdullayev came here together with five friends. With luck, one can earn up to €1,000 a month but the average is more towards €700. Abdullayev said that it's an okay wage for him.

In the agricultural sector, seasonal workers are allowed to be paid a minimum of about €700 a month, or the average wage in the industry. In the other industries the minimum allowed wage for guest workers is tied to the national average, or €742 a month after taxes according to 2018 data by the Central Statistics Office. This is independent of their profession.

Currently there are discussions over changing the rules, so that employers can pay the average wage in the industry. 

"The biggest dispute is over what the employers want. We have consulted the largest employers' organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Employers Confederation, as well as the Foreign Investors' Council. So that foreign guest workers would have to be paid not the national but the industry's average wage. This would make us better able to compete with Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. We will not have reached their [level of regulation], but all the same," said Maira Roze, deputy head of the Citizenship and Migration Affairs Office. 

Aleksejs Fomičovs employed eight guest workers and about 60 local berry pickers in his farm this summer. According to him, finding people to work is more difficult than paying the wages.

Earlier he had attracted Ukrainian workers, but currently they're more eager to go to the Czech Republic and Germany. He is mistrustful of intermediaries, as there have been cases where they find unqualified workers.

A year ago, he started looking for guest workers in person, starting by visiting the Embassy of Uzbekistan. He then went to Tashkent and interviewed potential employees. Meanwhile in Poland, he says, employers bring guest workers in from Asia using charter flights.

Fomičovs said that he and other agriculture employers are eyeing the possibility of chartering flights with workers from Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Nepal. He said that having guest workers is imperative as otherwise it's impossible to collect the entire harvest. 

Steep increase in number of work permits issued

According to data by the Citizenship and Migration Affairs Office, there were just 3,218 permits issued to guest workers in 2014 as opposed to 11,359 in 2018. This year, 9,738 permits have been issued by September. 

In order to be allowed to hire guest workers, employers have to have a job ad up for at least a month, and if there are no applications they're allowed to look for guest workers.

While employers try to circumvent the regulation, the State Employment Agency says it's very strict in evaluating the requirements. "We can't ask a cleaning lady to have some sort of specific education, or with knowledge of the Ukranian or Polish language," said Kristīne Stašāne, the deputy director of the agency.

There is an initiative to reduce the number of days a job ad has to be up to 10 days.

In the first half of 2019, 3,054 guest workers were from Ukraine, 1,118 from Belarus, 808 from Russia, 509 from Uzbekistan, and 167 from India. 

Illegal employment is on the rise as well, particularly in the construction sector. Often those are Ukrainian or Moldovan citizens who have better chances of entering the EU. By July this year, 162 cases were recorded of people working without the required documentation, said Border Guard representative Agnis Višņevskis. 

Currently most guest workers are in professions such as truck drivers, programmers, construction workers, as well as seasonal agricultural workers. Hiring one foreign worker has associated costs of anywhere from €100 to €500.

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