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August report on Latvian watchdog NGOs

Right of collective bargaining and action, fair and just working conditions, protection in the event of unjustified dismissal

Banner of letter campaign with the slogan „Hands off the Labor Law”The Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia continued its opposition to changes in the labor legislation with the letter campaign “Hands off the Labor Law” (‘Exerting pressure and reminding’ watchdog function), already reported in June and July overviews. The changes are lobbied by the Latvian Employers’ Confederation and enjoy substantial support among politicians. Because the Cabinet of Ministers approved the Labor Law amendments on August 6 and forwarded them to the Parliament, the Confederation’s efforts are now focused on the legislator. The Parliament will convene in September after a summer break. The main priorities of the Confederation remain preserving the amount of salary premium for overtime work and dismissal of labor union members.

Rights of the elderly, social security

LPA website

In August the Latvian Pensioners Association issued a call to its regional chapters for a public protest on September 7 with the slogan “About pensioners rights” (‘Exerting pressure and reminding’ watchdog function). The protest event will witness the adoption of a resolution to be passed on to the Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers. The Association demands increase of the lowest pensions and indexation of most pensions due to inflation. Precise formulation of the demands will be made available before the next Seniors’ Consultative Board at the Ministry of Welfare.

Right to good administration

CPCB chief J.Strelcenoks (right) and head of Corruption Combatting Divisions J.Strike (left)August came with an escalation of a conflict between the head of the national anti-corruption agency Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (CPCB) J.Strelcenoks and some of its top employees, most notably the long-time head of the Corruption Combatting Division Ms. J.Strike. Fortunately this time, compared to past cases, the problem is not improper outside influence on the office but what appears to be a conflict of personalities and mismatched mutual expectations. However, the effects on the CPCB appear to be no less worrisome, impacting the agency’s efficiency and public image and trust. As in the past, Transparency International Latvia (TI Latvia) and Public Policy Centre “Providus” have provided expert opinions on the problems and called for CPCB supervisors – the Prime Minister and the Prosecutor General – to exercise their supervisory rights to facilitate a resolution of the conflict. The rather public confrontation between CPCB chief and employees lead to the establishment of a high level expert group (link in Latvian to a Cabinet of Ministers press statement) on August 30. The group is tasked to explore and prepare recommendations that could improve the agency’s efficiency and good governance. TI Latvia and Providus are both members of the mentioned group (‘Expert’ watchdog function).

A Princeton University detailed case study of the agency’s work from establishment in 2002 to 2011 can be read here.

Article screenshot in the National Broadcasting Agency website reporting TI Latvia criticism. Persons in the picture – both supposedly political appointees.One of regular activities of Transparency International Latvia is the monitoring of appointments to top civil service and similar positions. A typical problem here is the absence of open, transparent and fair competitions or, quite often, direct appointments with political considerations. During August TI Latvia criticized (statement on TI Latvia website in Latvian) the leading coalition party “Unity” (“Vienotība” in Latvian) and the Ministry of Transport, because two of Unity’s members were appointed to high level posts in various state owned enterprises without a competition and in an unclear process (‘Intervening and alerting’ watchdog function).  These appointments were especially problematic, because both of persons in questions have worked as state representatives at the Riga Free Port authority and participated in decision making that was recently found be not only in contradiction to the principle of good governance, but violating multiple laws by the State Audit Office.

TI Latvia used the case to reiterate the urgency of implementing a reform of the state owned enterprise governance system and the need to select top staff in a procedure that applies to civil servants, i.e., open competition, due administrative process, use of a selection committee and clear merit-based criteria.

Non-discrimination, equality between men and women, right to property

Proposal profile on the ManaBalss.lv portalResource Center for Women “Marta” has prepared a proposal (‘Implementing change’ watchdog function) on the Latvian petitioning website www.manabalss.lv to ask the Parliament to improve the legal protection of persons in unregistered relationships (link to petition profile in Latvian). The proposal comes out of Marta’s experience in providing legal aid to women who have suffered significant moral and material loss when relationships legally not established as marriages break apart. In these cases women often cannot claim any return on their investment in, for example, common property compared to identical situations when the partners have been married.

The petition in the portal www.manabalss.lv is significant because if it gathers 10 000 signatures, the Parliament according to its Rules of Procedure (Article 131.3 Consideration of collective submissions) has to review it, inviting also the petition’s author, and consider drafting a legislative proposal. Several such collective submissions have already been adopted as legislation and several more are under legislative review.  The portal is rather unique globally due of its direct impact potential on the legislator. The mentioned Parliament Rules of Procedure clause was enacted as a result of the portal set-up initiative to make it more meaningful to petition the legislator.

Right to vote and to stand as a candidate at municipal elections, freedom of assembly and of association

Jurmala Preservation Society lawyer on Twitter: „The case will be carried forward. There should be no political party monopoly in municipalities.”In June Latvia had its national municipal elections, taking place every four years. Back in June the Jurmala Preservation Society (JPS) appealed the Central Election Commission (CEC) questioning the limitation set in Article 15 of the Law on Elections of the Republic City Council and Municipality Council that only political parties (and not citizens’ groups) are allowed to compete for Municipal Council seats in municipalities with 5000 or more inhabitants. The CEC struck down the appeal. In August it emerged publicly that the JPS has submitted an Administrative Court application (‘Implementing change’ watchdog function). Now the Administrative Court has to decide whether to make a ruling itself or apply for a Constitutional Court review. According to a JPS statement (on their website in Latvian), the legal clause that citizens groups are allowed to compete for power in municipalities with under 5000 inhabitants, but not above this number, is unconstitutional.

As the next EU Structural Funds planning period comes closer, the Latvian Civil Alliance (LCA) continues its work to advocate for NGO rights to participate in implementation of EU funded projects (‘Exerting pressure and reminding’ watchdog function). As in previous months, LCA continues its, sometimes confrontational, dialog with the Ministry of Finance/EU Funds Managing Authority. In August LCA wrote additional opinions (link in Latvian to overview) to the Ministry of Finance and the State Chancellery to request that NGOs are granted both broader implementing and partnering party status in the various funding programs. In relation to the above, during the regular Cabinet of Ministers and NGO Memorandum Council meeting the LCA also suggested the establishment a working group on NGO financing.

The LCA also prepared an opinion on a Ministry of Finance white paper on tax income 2014-2016 (text in Latvian, (‘Expert’ watchdog function)). The Ministry of Finance proposes that if NGOs’ business-related income exceeds a certain threshold, they would have to register as commercial entities. While the LCA supports the suggestion in principle, it raises questions about the insufficiently clear definition of “business-related activity by NGOs” which might lead to various misunderstandings. Discussions on the proposal are expected to continue as it takes the shape of a legislative proposal.

Environmental protection

Visualization of the Riga Fertilizer Terminal”. Source: http://www.rft.lv/lv/par-uznemumu/The Mezaparks Preservation Association (MPA) is one of the most active locally based NGOs to participate in public consultations on various construction and other city planning projects. Over the past two years MPA has actively monitored construction and operation of the Riga Fertilizer Terminal – a port enterprise that handles highly explosive chemicals. The MPA has challenged the Fertilizer’s set-up and operation at several stages due to suspicions that administrative procedures, for example, environment impact assessment or due administrative process, were not implemented properly. There is the additional fear of a major explosion (similar to a plant in West Fertilizer Company in Texas, US) because the Terminal is allowed to handle up to 90000 tons of ammonium nitrate. In August MPA reviewed the Civil Protection Plan of the Terminal and sent its negative conclusions (text in Latvian only) to the State Fire and Rescue Service (‘Expert’ and ‘Intervening and alerting’ watchdog functions). No response from the state institution has been received yet.

Logo funduszy szwajcarskich, Ecorys oraz Euroregion Bałtyk.

 

This text is a result of a research prepared within the project “Powerful Watchdogs” supported by a grant from Switzerland through the Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union. The report aims to show the up-to-date information regarding activity of watchdog organizations in a given country. The author refers to the classification on watchdog functions, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the international concepts of the transparent governance.

 

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