Kalle Koop: Rescue workers protesting despite salary advance. Why?

Kalle Koop.
Kalle Koop. Source: Private collection

The people support rescue workers' salary demands as they realize how grotesque it is that the most popular agency in charge of internal security pays its workers the least by a country mile. It is clearly neither fair nor sustainable, Kalle Koop writes.

Two hundred rescue workers recently gathered for a protest meeting in front of the Riigikogu to demand politicians keep their word and value the contribution of rescuers fairly. The protest was held after the government had pledged a salary advance of 12 percent for rescue workers. More than a few people likely wondered at continued dissatisfaction and why we're still protesting?

Is the reason truly lack of a sense of reality and ingratitude, as recently suggested by a top politician, or do the roots go deeper? The public's reactions have largely supported rescuers, while politicians have been much less concordant. But they too need to be understood as I'm sure finding additional funds in the already stretched thin and in parts austerity-aimed budget has not been a walk in the park.

However, accusing protesting rescue workers of exorbitance and ingratitude is incomprehensible. Such accusations can only be thrown around if one has failed to make the effort to understand the problem or simply doesn't want to. There is no cure for the latter as an obsession cannot be overturned by efforts to convince. We are very much prepared to explain matters to those who wish to listen.

There is a solution

Not everyone can become a rescue worker. A person needs a spotless record, good mental and physical form. Rescue workers are on the front lines of every crisis. Their work is exacting, responsible and often life-threatening.

Rescuers save lives, spare the environment and other people's property by risking their own life and health. To prevent accidents, rescue workers engage in broad-based prevention efforts and always face the people. Their days – and often nights – are full of action and the workload is mounting as new tasks are piled on to reduce the number of accidents.

Rescuers help people in any weather and situation. A rescuer can never say that they're tired, that the task is too complicated or suggest someone else take care of it instead. Society has high expectations for rescue workers, people count on the Rescue Board.

Unfortunately, rescuers' salary and social guarantees have fallen hopelessly behind the times and expectations and haven't for a long time corresponded to their contribution and the risks involved. Rescue workers are the worst off among those seeking salary advance, serving as examples of paid poverty at the interior ministry and making much less for equal work.

But it is not just about salary. Rescuers' benefits that are based on average salary are also considerably lower [than the ministry average]. Of the five internal security employees injured in a recent gas blast in Tartu, three were rescue workers who, after being seriously hurt, are looking at much smaller benefits.

Low salary and inadequate benefits – those two Gordian knots need to be solved before they morph into a security crisis, the Estonian Rescue Workers Union (EPTAÜ) emphasizes in its statement.

In 2018, an agreement was reached according to which rescue workers would be making at least the national average salary by 2023. Salaries were hiked by 23.6 percent in 2019 to help catch up to the national average. Salary advance slowed in 2020 (to around 6 percent) and came to naught as a result of the pandemic in 2021. New hope is found in the Ministry of Internal Affairs' salaries plan that prescribes hiking the pay of rescuers to 120 percent of the national average by 2025.

While this would mean postponing catching up to national average salary by a year, rescuers agreed as there was finally a plan and timeline to help them escape paid poverty. Minister of the Interior Kristian Jaani repeatedly said he would be applying for new funds from the state budget to facilitate an 18-percent salary hike for rescuers in 2022 based on the new salaries plan.

Plans remain plans and promises go unfulfilled

But hopes were dashed as suddenly as they had appeared. Despite vigorous growth of the economy and average salary, the government decided to allocate the interior ministry just a 5 percent salary fund bump. Prior agreements, backwardness of rescuers' salary and the ministry's salary advance plan were simply ignored.

It is fitting here to commend the interior minister and his team for finding a way to hike the salaries of rescue workers on the front lines by 12 percent that could be considered a decent advance in any situation resembling normalcy.

Even though the numbers look good on paper, the actual situation is far more complicated, with currently very low salaries the reason. Hiking a very low salary by a decent percentage still leaves one with a low salary. In other words, measuring the extra money in percentage points works to glamorize the result.

If a rescue worker currently takes home around €924 after taxes, the 2022 salary advance will add fewer than €100 to the sum. This does little to alleviate rescuers' concerns as the national average salary is still miles away, with the Bank of Estonia forecasting general salary advance to persist, leaving rescuers in paid poverty for years to come.

Even if the salary of rescue workers grew by 12 percent a year, with the national average growing at the current pace, it would take until 2037 for the salaries to level out. Provided there will be men and women prepared to wait that long. It is therefore little wonder, in light of an agreement not kept and promises broken, that rescue workers met for a protest on Toompea Hill on September 29.

Promises have been made and hope instilled in the past, but the actual situation has not improved. Time is running out as one could hear at the protest meeting: rescuers are sick and tired and no longer willing to put up with a situation where they need to work several jobs to make ends meet for an unknown number of years to come. Their spouses, children, health and motivation the victims.

All of it should be more than enough to understand rescuers' disappointment and frustration. Accusing them of deep ingratitude or failing to grasp reality speaks of superficiality and lack of empathy. It is equally baseless to accuse the EPTAÜ of exorbitance or associate it with a stereotypical view of unions and their rampant desire to demand more and more.

The union only wants the authorities to keep their word and put an end to unfair treatment of rescuers. It seems that the accusers themselves are struggling with sense of reality.

Rescuers among the mainstays of Estonia

It is the duty of rescue workers to protect the Estonian state and everyone's safety. We have done our work well because the people have entrusted the Rescue Board with the title of the most trusted state agency for several consecutive years.

The people support rescue workers' salary demands as they realize how grotesque it is that the most popular agency in charge of internal security pays its workers the least by a country mile. It is clearly neither fair nor sustainable.

The board of the Estonian Association of Journalists (EAL) has also described it as dangerous when people on whose work and well-being the lives of hundreds depend are paid less than the national average salary. "We talk too much about internal security and do too little," the association's statement reads.

Therefore, rescuers had to choose whether to give up on security or turn up on Toompea Hill to ask the state for help. They did the responsible thing by choosing the second path. It is to be hoped that the Riigikogu will also do the responsible thing, after realizing the seriousness of the situation, and find a way to give rescuers an 18-percent salary advance in 2022 as well as uphold the interior ministry's plan to hike salaries of rescue workers to 120 percent of the national average by 2025.

Rescue workers have another option, seeking other kind of employment in the private sector. However, this would leave Estonia without professional rescuers that would in turn lead to a paid service: firetrucks and rescuers for those who can afford it.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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