Originally, this post was inspired by three conversations and events that have happened over the last few weeks… Then, a colleague told me a fourth story about a taxi driver that really drove the point home.
1) Recently, a Riga citizen journalist reported a police raid on a number of older ladies selling garden apples outside a suburban supermarket. One of them was doing it to get enough money to buy her monthly meds. Presumably, the others had similar reasons because, in case you didn’t know – pensions and social benefits in Latvia are dire. Unsurprisingly, the story caused public outcry with people expressing their support and sympathy for the ladies whose apples had been confiscated because they didn’t even have enough money to pay the fine.
Those who jumped to the policemen’s defence tried to explain that they were only doing their job and following orders to do whatever they can to crack down on the grey economy. But this has got to be the wrong way to tackle the problem.
2) I recently had a conversation about not being able to afford to be ill – literally. In Latvia, when you’re ill, you don’t get your full salary. On day one of your sick leave, your pay is exactly zero. From day two you get a certain percentage of your daily rate which changes, depending on how long a time you’re off work. This can mean a) you drag yourself to work no matter how much you’re suffering and spread the germs, or b) you suffer differently at the end of the month when you get considerably less pay.
3) An expat I met at a dinner party was telling me about what she does and said ever so aptly ‘I’m so Latvian, I have three jobs’. Madly, this has become the norm in Latvia. People are put under a lot of pressure to manage their time and I wouldn’t be surprised if this leaves some sort of mark on society, with so many people tired and overworked.
4) The aforementioned taxi driver decided my colleague was the right person to boast to about the big salary he’d made last month. When she asked how a taxi driver could make that much money, he admitted it wasn’t just from taking customers from A to B. In fact, he also runs an escort service on the side.
In short, most Latvians are what Alex would call “professional pie fingerers” (fingers in many pies – get it?). We are job jugglers and we make money as best we can. Even your GP is likely to have more than one source of income. Your neighbour definitely does, and your kid’s P.E. teacher is likely to.
From selling apples to juggling more than one official job, most of us tend to find ways to make some extra cash to afford ourselves a more comfortable lifestyle. It’s one of the realities of life in Riga where prices for everyday items and services aren’t all that different from prices in other European cities but the average salary is a fair bit lower, not to mention the average pension. Although for some, it’s just a case of wanting to make some extra money from doing something they like.
Of course, this money making isn’t always entirely legal. A lot of people will just accept cash in hand for services like private language lessons and gardening because it’s easier, means you can avoid paying taxes and get more spending money. Not a lot of thought goes into how this could affect future pensions or benefits if these are ever needed.
That’s not to say no one pays taxes! A popular choice is called “autoratlīdzības” (sort of like royalties) – an agreement that sees a freelancer sign a one-off contract with a company that agrees to pay taxes in his place. This works for people in the creative industries and services like writing a piece of music or designing a book cover. Unfortunately, this means the taxes paid don’t go towards securing the person’s future pension or benefits. Of course, there is also a fair share of people who choose to stick to the book and declare everything there is to declare.
Then there is the infamous “blats” system which entails a mutually beneficial exchange of goods or services, and is something most people blame on Soviet times when this was often the only way you could get hold of something. The exchange doesn’t have to take place at the same time. It’s quite common to receive something and then pay the person back when they’re in need. Usually, it’s just a case of knowing the right person. Say you happen to be really good at English and your friend asks you to proofread their cover letter. A few months down the line you apply for a new job and need some references. Cue phone call to friend. Essentially, it’s like an IOU.
How many jobs or side projects do you have? Do you do them for fun or out of necessity? If you had the opportunity, would you choose extra work if it meant extra cash at the end of the month?