Covid19, Latvia and the Gig Economy: Challenges and opportunities

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Today during Covid–19 circumstances Gig economy approach has become more necessity rather than theoretical possibility. But still transformation of Latvian business and employment market does not run so smooth. Why so?


At the end of year 2019 the State Labour Inspectorate of Latvia in cooperation with private partners released results of a research on new forms of employment presence and potential in Latvia (http://www.vdi.gov.lv/files/jnf_gala_zinojums.pdf). The results of this research as well of other international researches are rather controversial as do not conform to the real situation in the country.

Although the aforementioned researches claim that employers in Latvia are supporters of old-style employment and are not willing to change the practice, in fact the laws of Latvia in effect do not provide flexibility on the approach of employment.

Covid-19 has badly hit a lot of economies, and actually highlighted the largest challenges – employers to save their business would like to pay less, whereas employees need flexibility as they are required to work remotely and combine their private and work lives.

In this article an analysis of how general conditions of employment applicable today correspond to frame of main five aspects of a Gig economy will be provided.

Employment “one to one” or “one to many”

Gig economy considers that traditional employment has no longer place in our world. The employment should be available among one employer and many employees, many employers and many employees or one employee and many employers, thus employment being in each contractual relations part time, nevertheless all employees are jointly and severally liable for the result of work.

Labour Law of Latvia keeps traditions of employment – one employer and one employee. Likewise part time work is permitted just in statutorily listed cases like to replace an employee in long term absence, in case of increase of the workload in the company, in emergency cases, and in certain areas like culture, sports, banking, education and diplomacy. Moreover, length of a fixed-term employment may not exceed 5 years in total (including extensions). As a result of this majority of employments are open ended.

In order to solve the burden imposed by law, employers often use potential employees as external service providers based on a Service Agreement in this manner imitating self employment. Self employment for a payor is less expensive tax wise, which led authorities to introduce limiting measures for flexibility of entrepreneurs.
In the Law on Personal Income Tax criteria of employment per se where introduced. Namely, an agreement with an individual can be deemed as contractual relationships subject to payment of salary and accordingly payroll if at least one of the following conditions has been ascertained:

  • the individual has economic dependence upon the party to whom he/she provides services;
  • lack of assumption of financial risks in the fulfilment of work or no liability in respect to lost debtor debts;
  • integration of the contracted individual into the company to which services are provided (e.g. existence of a work or recreational areas, a duty to observe internal rules of the company);
  • availability of holidays and paid leave in accordance with schedules of the company;
  • work shall be performed under management or control of the other contracting party – the customer, and the individual is deprived of possibility to involve in the service provision his/ her personnel or sub-contractors; or
  • the individual is not owner of the assets used while rendering services to the company.

Respectively in case the State Revenue Service of Latvia (tax authority) detects presence of the criteria listed, it shall be entitled to reclassify the contractual relations of the seemingly independent parties into employment relations as a result of which remuneration paid to the individual would be subject to full payroll as any other salary gained on basis of Employment Agreement. The tax expense threshold the companies playing with by out of box employment results in significant difference:

  • payroll in case of employment – progressive personal income tax between 20% to 23% depending on the income (at certain level the annual income of an individual may though be subject to maximum rate of the personal income tax – 31.4%); social security contributions of 35.09%; majority of these expenses being on the employer’s shoulders; whereas
  • taxes applicable in case of self-employment – progressive personal income tax between 20% to 31.4% depending on the income; social security contributions of 32.15%, basis of these compulsory contributions being a freely chosen income; in this case if the contracted individual is a registered economic operator – the taxes are all his/her liability, whereas if the individual has not registered with tax authorities independent economic activity, the taxes shall be withheld at the moment of disbursement of the remuneration and paid into the State budget by the company contracting the individual.

In circumstances of Covid–19 the traditional employment scenarios chosen by entrepreneurs due to rather strict statutory rules have heavily impacted operation of businesses as employers had to either dismiss their employees or let them in idleness with crisis management allowance established by the State as support during Covid–19.

The outcome showed that applying of different type of “employment” structures, like contracting specialists on the need to basis or crowdsourcing of employees among numerous employers could have facilitated challenges the employers face today in many ways – provide availability of different specialists for the project/ time period required, limit expenses in respect to the employees whom the companies were forced to let in idleness, and alike, all of this still keeping the business running.

Employment volatility as new formula for flexibility

As described earlier, present requirements of the Labour Law of Latvia require employment relationships to be based on clear and sustainable rules thus ensuring predictable and long term support to the employees, both in terms of employment and social security.
The strict approach is even more secured by strict statutory conditions and notice periods under which an employee can be dismissed:

With a notice of immediate effect:

  • while performing work the employee has acted unlawfully and therefore has lost trust of the employer;
  • while performing the work employee is in a state of intoxication (e.g. alcohol, drugs, other); or
  • the employee is unable to perform the contracted work due to a state of health, and this is confirmed by a medical opinion;

With a 10 days notice:

  • in case employee has without justifiable reason materially violated the contracted work order;
  • while performing the work the employee has acted contrary to good morals, and such action is incompatible with the continuation of the employment;
  • the employee has grossly violated work safety rules and endangered safety and health of other persons; or
  • due to temporary incapacity of the employee for work for more than 6 and up to 12 months;

With a one month notice:

  • if the employee is in lack of sufficient professional skills to perform the contracted work;
  • an employee previously employed in the particular position has been reinstated to work;
  • in case of staff redundancy (presuming that employer will not hire immediately new employee in same position); or
  • in case the employer is being liquidated.

Having seen the list of statutory conditions one would definitely agree that only few circumstances are of a regular character, meaning can be actually applied, whereas the rest are seldom met. Sure there is also available an exception out of this strongly established frame – to terminate employment without any specific reason if the employee and employer can reach a mutual agreement. However that may be a challenge – employees are not obliged to participate in negotiations with employers and can simply walk away.

So how much of volatility and flexibility can be reached in such strongly fixed statutory frame?
Practically not much.

Accordingly under Covid–19 circumstances companies have applied staff redundancy condition more than ever, which may not have been necessary if employment structures would be more flexible. Part of employees today let in idleness have started to look for new job even before the actual dismissal, because perception of stability and predictability is the driving force. This actually showing that although employment of a periodical character would not provide long term income and social security, with this approach the employees of Latvia would have been more used and resistant to fast changing circumstances and periods of actual idleness (meaning also – had some savings).

It appears that development of economy and business approaches runs on a speed of light, whereas statutory regulation does not manage to follow in those footsteps. The question is though do we need today law and regulation for each detail, if in practice changes come into our lives so fast. Maybe a better solution would be regulation on general principles and practically providing field of different approaches and solutions which would fit more each business segment and keep economy running also in such extraordinary circumstances as Covid-19.

A close cooperation among numerous employers

The Gig economy concept provides for presence of different types of cooperation among employers and employees, including crowdsourcing of personnel, sharing of working spaces, liaising business operations and sharing liability in respect to work performed.

Under present requirements of employment and tax laws of Latvia having shared workforce is rather complicated. The statutory restrictions keep accountability of employers at a very high level thus at the end of the day the approach of traditional employment – “one employer and one employee” – on Latvian market appears to be the easiest. Likewise the strict statutory rules have developed certain culture also on the employee side – “I have one master” seems the most correct and secure way and any other solutions are simply out of discussion.

As an example, it took years for the Latvian market to admit that employees can be also leased out. Due to long term difficulties with practical applicability of this concept and contractual split of liabilities between lessor and lessee in respect to the employee (being those days at full discretion of the contractual parties), not always being favourable for the employee, in year 2011 changes to the Labour Law were introduced. The amendments established precise definition on what a lease of employees is, the scope of liability and split of duties among the parties resulting therefrom. However not without creating new burdens.

The statutory protection level of employees on the Latvian market has always been very high and same became applicable in case of lease of workforce. No doubt employees have to be protected; however employee lease is a slightly different way of employment and therefore the regulation in place is still not always compatible with differentiation of employment schemes possible. Last but not least, another aspect complicating applicability of lease of employees is that lease of workforce is set as licensable operation. The procedure to obtain license is complicate enough and involves preparation of paper loads, moreover under statutory requirements a license must be obtained even if the employees are leased between related companies. Thus benefits of this employment structure are certainly disputable.

Crowdsourcing of employees is the next step; however theoretically possible already today. Individuals could become self employed specialists and enter into contracts with different companies, thus avoiding of the risk under Law on Personal Income Tax (described in this article earlier) to be recognized as employee of any of these companies provided of course that the individual assumes certain financial risks and does job with his/her own tools in majority. It can be considered also as mitigation of risks for both parties – the individual has certain financial and social security stability, as losing one customer would not heavily impact the individual’s income and life quality; whereas on the company’s side – expenses can be planned according to business plans and necessity. But not all individuals are today ready to work without strong supervision and assume full liability.

Covid-19 showed that flexibility should be introduced. Moreover a plan on mitigation of risks and business sustainability are not just nice words, it is a must have plan to be updated constantly for the companies to be ready for extraordinary situations. Likewise stability the employees consider they have due to open ended “one master” employment are very volatile, the risks are always out there and nothing should be deemed as for granted.

Nevertheless, pure employment issues are not the only challenges in the Gig economy approach.

Remote and digital employment – the skills for the future

Gig economy idea claims for flexibility and free choice of place to be, which for a traditional society like Latvia is a true challenge. Historically established traditions of frame and control in each aspect are still alive and part of the culture, whereas new generation which was born in years of independence already with their different view is considered as rebels.

Labor Law of Latvia states ten mandatory terms and conditions to be included in each that Employment Agreements:

  • name, surname, ID number/ birth date, address of the employee; name, registration number, address of the employer;
  • starting date of the employment;
  • expected length of the employment (in case the agreement is concluded for certain period of time);
  • place of work and/ or in case employee will be required to perform work duties in different places, this must be clearly indicated;
  • the position employee is employed for indicating also code of the profession according to Classification of Professions established by the State;
  • amount of remuneration agreed and date of payment thereof;
  • contracted work time per day or per week;
  • length of the annual paid leave;
  • notice periods of the Employment Agreement;
  • indication to Collective Agreement and internal procedures and policies of the company applicable to the said employment.

These mandatory aspects must be included in the agreement irrespective of whether they are statutorily fixed or can be changed upon agreement of the parties. Moreover, in case further changes in these terms shall be required the employer is obliged to inform the employee on that with one month prior written notice. Whereas coming into effect of the amendments to the agreement shall be absolutely subject to agreement between the parties or it triggers rights for the employer to unilaterally terminate employment (based though on staff reduction argument). Thus clear statement of where the work place is forms one of the key elements of the employment and changing it is rather inflexible.

But it must be also taken into account that historically the concept of a fixed work place is connected to certain additional and consequential aspects. Namely, performance of work in the work place indicated in the Employment Agreement is solely subject to payment of salary and if applicable – compensation for overtime, as a general rule – not less than in amount of 100% of the hourly or daily salary rate set. Whereas work outside the work place established by the Employment Agreement may be deemed one of two business trip types and statutory rule is to provide additional protection to employees when they have to perform their work outside used place, especially if this is away from home:

  • Business trip A (komandējums) – a trip for a certain period of time based on order of the employer, to another location either inland or abroad to perform work duties or to promote qualification. This business trip is subject to compensation by the employer of daily allowance at least in the statutorily established amount, transportation and luggage expenses, expenses for accommodation, parking expenses, insurance expenses, participations fees at the events and alike;
  • Business trip B (darba brauciens) – work of the employee, if it takes place while travelling in accordance with the concluded Employment Agreement/ job description, inland or abroad, if the work involves regular/ systematic trips and change of location. This business trip is subject to compensation by the employer of slightly less expenses than in case of the business trip A – transportation expenses, expenses for accommodation, parking expenses, insurance expenses, expenses for transportation of luggage and few more.

At the end of the day it is significant for the employer to precisely establish whether this is employment at another place as provides Employment Agreement or one of the business trips, accordingly precisely detecting which business trip type is applied as on this depends the overall amount of expenses to be compensated for the employee. And even more, certain aspects as for instance whether the employee can return to the residence place at the end of the day can decrease the amount of compensation to be paid. Accordingly applying of a fixed place of work may be financial wise more advantageous for the employer than flexibility of location for the employee.

Another challenge of the work outside the office premises is compliance with work and health safety rules. When the work is performed in office premises of the employer it is mandatory obligation of the employer to ensure safe and healthy work conditions for its employees that including air conditions, work place suitable to spend hours in performing duties, safe and suitable tools for work and alike. Likewise the employer is in charge of running trainings for employees in this respect.

Before extraordinary Covid–19 circumstances remote work was present in Latvia; however it was merely optional and applied in exceptional cases. Each case requiring ongoing remote work was true stress to employers, because the only way how to mitigate responsibility of the employer in respect to work safety was to conclude an additional agreement, with the employee probably stating that it has been initiative of the employee to work remotely and employer has agreed to that, thus the liability in respect to the work safety (and health) condition being transferred fully to the employee.

Co-working spaces as a first change in culture had shaken not only the traditional approach of what a work place should be, but also the statutory frame. Due to various forms of employment becoming more and more relevant, including remote work, when the employee works at home or elsewhere outside the company, necessity for adaption of the work safety regulation to current trends became inevitable.
As a result in October 2019 amendments to the Labour Protection Law were adopted.
The new regulation coming into effect on July 1, 2020 finally declares what is a remote work, excluding therefrom work which is related to regular travelling. The new rules also establish obligation for the remote work performer to cooperate and exchange information with the employer in evaluation of work safety risks in the environment the employee is going to perform the work, if such circumstances can endanger or impact safety and health of the employee. The support in evaluation of the work safety must be provided by the employer irrespective of number of locations the employee would decide to perform the work at. And the employer will be responsible for the recordkeeping in respect to such work place evaluations. Nevertheless the part of law in respect to liability has not changed overall – the employer remains responsible for work and health safety at work of the persons employed/ contracted.

It can be already today predicted that practicalities of the newly established approach will cause a lot of tricky and disputable situations. In a culture where employees are not keen to take responsibility, the new regulation will trigger employee claims to finance and ensure working conditions per individual choice and ambitions unless the employers will develop precise internal policies and procedures on conditions and equipment company deems sufficient and appropriate for the particular position in which the employee is employed.

Hence the statutory regulation obviously needs more of development and tests in deployment before Gig economy approach can be deemed as fitting the culture and expectations of the society and aligning the statutory rules.

For performance of the work duties especially information and communications technologies (ICT) are required

And finally – under the Gig economy performance of work remotely would not be possible without proper gadgets – PCs, smartphones, tablets etc.

When it comes to extraordinary circumstances like Covid-19 our very well digitalized society appears to be well skilled mainly in using digital social media, but as far as it concerns doing work, not yet so sophisticated. Lockdown discovered that a lot of inhabitants of Latvia have very poor ICT with limited functionality, low security level and even outdated. When using such equipment for performance of work duties the productivity is under question, cooperation of employees limps, reaching results takes longer time. But even more – data (especially confidential information) of the employer is endangered when poor ICT solutions are used.

If we take a look at digitalization of Latvia, although not much internationally advertised, it is at a high level.
Already today Latvian society has access to:

  • Latvia has one of the fastest internet connections in the world;
  • registration of corporate changes with the Company Register by submitting electronically signed documents (www.ur.gov.lv; www.latvija.lv);
  • complying with tax reporting requirements via electronic tool of the State Revenue Service, providing all communication with the tax authority also electronically (eds.vid.gov.lv);
  • signing majority of documents (public and private) electronically with secure digital signature and a time stamp (granted based on and connected with ID and passport of an individual) issued by LVRTC – one of the leading electronic communication service providers in Latvia (www.eparaksts.lv). This signature is recognized and can be combined with similar electronic signatures of other countries, e.g. Lithuania and Estonia. Even more – since some time mobile version of the secure electronic signature (and time stamp) is available, which means that any documents can be signed also in a smart phone;
  • notaries of Latvia perform their duties and execute documents electronically with secure digital signature and a time stamp;
  • State and majority of municipal authorities are welcoming electronic communication;

and many more electronic solutions.

Irrespective of that the mindset of “paper prevails over other solutions” is still there in society. Attack of Covid-19 literally pushed the society towards digitalization in mindset too and actually understanding that tools and solutions required for remote business handing and employment are already there, now we only need to understand what would be the procedures to correctly implement those in real time and every day, because:

  • the old processes employees and employers are used to, do not work anymore;
  • both parties – employees and employers lack clarity on how to manage work with no stress or at least at proportionate stress level;
  • the remote work requires new skills not only for employees but also for management. How about control over employee work, what are the ways to manage it if all the team is not in one room;
  • no matter how digitally developed is the country each individual is though on different level of development in this respect, and this becomes true challenge when it comes to day-to-day remote work and cooperation;
  • and last but not least – the employers have invested in tools and equipment within on prems concept, whereas remote work needs different type of investment, more developed tools and IT security guarantees.

This means that each company needs an actual transformation plan irrespective of the business it operates in. The digitalization is inevitable, it is a rational optimization of resources used, development of new skills and taking each employee on a whole new level of professional performance – individually and team wise. For companies digitalization increases competitiveness and readiness to unexpected circumstances and sustainability of business operation.

So summarizing all the aspects analyzed during this article, Covid-19 has made people think not only, what is actual value of the employment and how one can concurrently protect employees and its business, but also how much of processes we can transform in an e-approach immediately and where we still need know-how and investment.
Transforming into a Gig economy requires much more than overnight meditation with one thought – this shall pass. It is a new way of living.

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Elina Girne
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