Requiring business and government employees to speak Russian is absurd in a country where the official language is Latvian, and that’s why the head of a leading diaspora organization says the group is unhappy with the Saeima’s recent decision to not amend the Labor Law.
In a Feb. 7 letter to Saeima Chairperson Solvita Aboltiņa and to party officials, Mārtinš Sausiņš of the World Federation of Free Latvians (Pasaules brīvo latviešu apvienība, or PBLA) expressed regret at the parliament’s failure to consider amendments that would have strengthened the status of the Latvian language.
The Saeima on Feb. 3 rejected the amendments proposed by the National Association (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!” – “Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”) that would have restricted employers’ ability to require employees to be able to speak a foreign language.
“Asking employees in state offices and businesses, where the only official language is the Latvian language, seems, in our opinion, disproportionate and absurd,” Sausiņš wrote. He added that the PBLA urges the Saeima to revist the issue soon.
Increasingly, employees are being asked to have foreign language skills, usually Russian, even when it appears the job has nothing to do with providing services to foreign clients, according to the National Assocation’s proposal. The result is linguistic discrimination against those Latvian residents who do not speak Russian, meaning that they cannot find jobs in many businesses and government offices, especially in areas of high Russian-speaking populations.
Under the proposed amendments, employers would have been barred from disproportiately requiring specific foreign language skills. Foreign languages that are official languages within in the European Union—and those do not include Russian—could be required only if job duties could not be performed without that skill.
Non-EU official languages, including Russian, would have been allowed only in situations and professions defined by the Cabinet of Ministers.
Speaking to the Saeima on Feb. 3 in support of the legislation, MP Inese Laizāne of the National Association noted that a high percentage of ethnic Latvian youth are not learning Russian. Because they cannot find jobs without that skill, they are forced to look for work abroad.
Ainārs Šlesers, leader of the For a Good Latvia! (Par labu Latviju!) party, countered her by arguing that the real question is how to help Latvians become competitive in the employment market. He noted that in tourism and the transit business multilingualism is an important job skill.
Forcing employers to take on workers who know just one language is not a solution, Šlesers suggested.
“In a small country we should establish a policy that, when they finish school, young people know at least three languages,” he said.
On a 34-32 vote, with 22 MPs abstaining, the Saeima rejected a motion to send the legislation to the Social and Labor Affairs Commission, thereby ending consideration of the bill.
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