Operation Frics, episode #4 - Watchdog trouble

Take note – story published 7 years ago

Latvian Television's Aizliegtais paņēmiens (Forbidden methods) show has aired another episode about the reality of running a small business in Latvia. Here's LSM's recap of the fourth episode, broadcast on the evening of November 23. The episode dealt with watchdog institutions, some petty corruption in them, and the seemingly arbitrary way companies can be fined by these institutions.

In the course of an investigative experiment journalists opened Frics, a french fries restaurant in the fashionable Jūrmala resort and chronicled how they fared by making numerous secret recordings.

They weren't trying to make some hard-earned cash, but rather wanted to understand, see and feel what's it like for a small business to face the bureaucracy and possible corruption behind the scenes in Latvia. 

In the episode

Journalists spent the episode trying to 'shoot themselves in the foot' by contacting various watchdog institutions - the State Revenue Service (VID), the Food and Veterinary Service (PVD), the State Labour Inspectorate (VDI), and the State Fire and Rescue Service (VUGD) - and complaining about various violations in the company.

The highlight of the episode was a PVD employee who tried selling the company a certificate for finishing a work hygiene course. No one from the company had attended it, of course.

The PVD was contacted by a journalist who said that Frics is using old frying oil and that there had been a hair in one of the caller's portions. While they were waiting for the sanitary watchdog to fry them out, a PVD employee called, warning about the visit beforehand, though refusing to reveal the reasons behind it: "I'll be visiting you and then tell you why." Of course any existing violations could have been prevented due to the warning.

After a few days the inspector came and said a number of things, for example, that the personnel needed special headgear to comply with regulations. The official, spouting bitter truths about her work during the inspection, was actually quite friendly and didn't fine the company. She also offered to sell a certificate that the company needed, for a generous €30 instead of €45 on the sticker. The certificate was for finishing a course on basic hygiene. 

Frics accepted the offer, though the inspector was met with cameras when she returned next day to sell the newly-forged certificate. She was not pleased at all. At any rate, the inspector left the institution on her own accord, and the authorities were informed by an irate PVD about the former inspector's professional misgivings. 

Pointedly, Frics was raided by two PVD employees the next day and fined €25 (+€50 for road expenses) for various violations. 

VID didn't react to the journalists' complaints - one 'customer' complained he hadn't received a receipt, while an 'employee' complained about non-taxed wages. VUGD was alerted about possible fire safety violations and promptly came to an inspection, but alas it wasn't during work hours.

The VDI reacted to a complaint from a fictional employee about a non-existent work agreement. The employment watchdog swept the company with four inspectors and slapped it with a €700 fine about the missing agreement, though without first learning that they're fining a non-existent individual.

In the studio

As the head of the PVD, Māris Balodis, was present at the studio, it's natural he came under the most flak.

He said that the fines for hygiene violations are inadequately small as they concern the safety of many individuals. He criticized the course system for ensuring that high-level employees are informed about hygiene but was able to dismiss the matter quickly as it's not on the turf of the food safety watchdog.

He explained that the second PVD sweep included a €50 'expenses' tab as it was an extraordinary inspection. 

While the employee selling certificates he called a badge of shame on the watchdog.

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