Special needs groups held demonstrations in six of the largest cities of Estonia on Saturday, protesting against the planned work ability reform, but the government is determined to move forward on the package of measures designed to relieve some of the pressure on the pension system.
The protests took place in Tartu, Rakvere, Viljandi, Narva, Pärnu and Tallinn and drew a crowd of several hundred.
Demonstrators told ETV that they are well informed about the planned reform and not afraid to state their opinion.
"People who have certain disabilities are not unemployed. They are merely people who need more attention, more support services. They would definitely go to work and contribute to society," said one protester.
Tiina Kangro, leader of the Estonian Union for Carers, said that the government has not taken the amendments that the special needs groups proposed into serious consideration and they are only seemingly involved in the process.
At the same time, demonstrators said that the reform plan has improved over the past half a year.
Urmas Kruuse, Minister of Health and Labor, remains confident that the work ability reform will help disabled people to find employment and said that some demonstrators seemed to lack correct information about a reform the government says is geared away from disability benefits and toward ability, with greater encouragement of employers to hire the disabled.
"Until a few months ago people with special needs were afraid that their benefits will be reduced under the new system. Today I am happy to say that the new benefits are, first of all, larger than the average of present disability pensions. And secondly, if people with special needs find employment and start earning wages, the disability benefits will not be reduced before they make at least 960 euros per month, and they will only be capped at 1280 euros. We must bear in mind here that the people who receive disability benefits currently earn less than 600 euros in average," he said.
Protesters are also afraid that the work ability reform has been rushed and that one's ability to work will no longer be determined by the doctors but by the specialists in the unemployment office.
The government indeed plans to hire a few hundred new officials whose job it will be to determine the degree of disability a person has. Kruuse said that if previously people had to wait for months to see a doctor who would determine one's degree of disability and organize for rehabilitation accordingly, the new system would get rid of the long waiting-lists and allow people to start receiving the necessary services without delay.
"The focus of the work ability reform is to help people find work by offering financial assistance, job market measures in accordance with one's medical condition, necessary adjustments in the workplace, special tools and rehabilitation. This is much more than has been offered so far. We must all work together to make the new system work. There is a large-scale labor shortage in Estonia," Kruuse said and added that 68 percent of employers are already willing to hire people with special needs but they require government support to do so.