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Activation Policy in Slovakia: Another Failing Experiment?

31 March 2006

Laco Oravec and Zuzana Bošelová1

A recent position paper of the European Anti- Poverty Network (EAPN) argues that “Good activation is the ambitious but only relevant approach.”2 The same paper defines ‘good activation’ by the following criteria: 

  • Improving personal, social and vocational skills and competencies and enabling to further social integration.
  • Individualised and flexible offers taking the whole person into consideration and acknowledging diversity of age, experience, etc.
  • Relevance of the offer for the individual person’s needs, wishes and priorities.
  • Aiming to overcome or compensate for the excluding forces in society.
  • Wide range networking with relevant actors at local level, such as actors on the labour market, health care services, social services, housing sector, communities, etc.
  • Respecting the individual’s identity and selfrespect.
  • Achieving quality compared to ambitious social standards.
  • Raising status.
  • Building on reciprocity between the individual and the (municipal) agency.
  • That the planning, the design and the implementation of activation is carried out in cooperation and interaction between the claimant and the (municipal) agency.
  • Involving the resources and strengths of the claimants.
  • Using adequate social income, including minimum income, as a positive tool likely to guarantee the security needed for activation. Benefits should be used also as a positive incentive to face the extra costs and risk when resuming a job after unemployment.

In this paper we offer an analysis of the Slovak activation policy vis-а-vis these criteria. We also discuss the effects of this policy on the Romani population, which is affected by massive and disproportionate exclusion from the labour market.3 Given the fact that the Slovak government has not implemented any large scale Roma-targeted programmes for reintegration in the labour market, the activation programme is also the major government initiative aimed at reducing unemployment among Roma. Indeed, research indicates that in some places Roma constituted close to hundred percent of the individuals participating in the activation activities. The impact of activation policies on Roma is also discussed in the context of the implementation of the amended Act on Assistance in Material Need which introduced a fixed ceiling for social assistance income as a result of which large Romani families relying on social aid were disproportionately disadvantaged. The following analysis is based on research undertaken by Milan Šimečka Foundation in the period May-July 2005 in Slovakia.

For years, Slovak social policy has been criticised for being too paternalistic and for failing to motivate people to escape from the dependence on social benefits and to seek jobs. In 2004, the Slovak government launched activation policy as one of the active labour market policy tools.

The activation policy is considered by the government as one of the most successful measures in our recent history and an effective tool in helping unemployed to enter the labour market. The activation policy was introduced in the beginning of 2004 when the new Act on Employment Services (Act No 5/2004 Coll.) entered into force. The Act states at Article 52, paragraph 1: “For the purposes of this Act, activation activity is defined as support for maintaining the working habits of the job seeker. Activation activity shall be executed in the duration of at least ten hours per week and 40 hours per month, except for the month in which the activation activity began.” Further the Act stated: “Activation activity may be performed in the form of minor communal services performed for a municipality and organised by the latter, or of voluntary works organised by a legal person or by a natural person.” The Act on Assistance in Material Need (No 599/ 2003 Coll.) lists the categories of individuals who can be involved in various forms of activation policy as well as the activation payment (some extra payment added to social benefits) they are entitled to. Initially, this amount was 1,000 SKK (approximately 25 EUR), and currently it is 1,700 SKK (approximately 45 EUR) per month.

The introduction of this tool was followed by a high demand for organising activation programmes among municipalities and non-governmental organisations. Only in the first year after the launch of this measure, over 200,000 persons participated in activation programmes which were managed by almost five thousand subjects (municipalities, NGOs, churches etc.). The number of individuals who took part in activation activities exceeded by far initial expectations of about 100,000 persons. During the research, many Roma testified that they were not included in activation activities due to shortage of vacant jobs. It could be assumed that in the regions with high levels of unemployment, many families were not able to gain access to the activation activities and to compensate the loss of income resulting from the reduction of the social benefits, also a result of legal amendments undertaken at that time. This especially relates to the regions of Košice, Prešov and Banská Bystrica, which are also the regions with the highest numbers of Romani population.4

The implementation of the Slovak activation programmes is plagued by numerous problems which question their efficiency. While aware of the urgent need to reform the Slovak social policy, we are afraid that the way the reform has been organised makes it another example of misguided policy.

In the first place, the activation programmes seem to be failing in their major goal – to regenerate people’s employability. Activation policy evolved from a short-term active labour market policy tool into a new form of a long-term social dependency. Initially, the programmes were designed to activate participants in the course of 6 months – a period considered long enough to allow them to join the labour force. Shortly after the launch of the programmes, it was obvious that this was an ambitious task – after one year of implementation, only approximately 1% of all participants succeeded in finding jobs.5 Later, the whole concept of the activation policy was revised and the 6 month limitation dropped. The revised activation policy allows for continuous involvement of persons in the activation activities. As a result, their chances of advancing towards a real job are significantly reduced.

The introduction of the activation policy coincided with an adoption of the new Act on Social Assistance in Material Need, which reduced the social assistance income of families and introduced a fixed benefit ceiling limited to 2 adults and 4 children.6 As a consequence, activation activities and related payment were not perceived as an opportunity to re-enter the labour market. Many people sought in activation activities compensation to reduced social benefits and saw the activation activities as the ‘real’ job that generates money (social benefits). During the research we met respondents who stated: “I am not seeking job, I work in activation”. Activation policy appears to be functioning as an alternative social policy rather than an active labour market tool,7 thus departing from the goals of the European Social Fund, which has funded it.

Another factor which has weakened the impact of the activation policy is that it has ignored the limitations of the labour market as well as the limitations of its participants. One significant consequence of the transition process was the shrinking of the job market.8 In that context it might be interesting to note, that national activation policy was launched in a period when the official supply of jobs (registered at labour offices) was 20 times lower than the demand (number of unemployed). This fact raises the question – towards what is the government activating unemployed people, when there are no jobs available? Furthermore, the predominant part of the unemployed population are persons with very low qualification who have little chances to find a job in relation to the needs of present labour market.

The amount of the compensation offered for activation work is so low that it can be considered a form of modern slavery. In 2004, the amount of the activation wage per hour was 12.5 SKK (approximately 0.35 EUR) and currently it is 21.2 SKK (approximately 0.60 EUR).9 The official minimum wage per hour in Slovakia is 39.70 SKK (approximately 1.05 EUR).10 As long as the activation programme is part of an active labour market policy it should respect some ethical aspects of the value of work. Failing in these aspects, the whole policy can trigger deformations in the labour market. For instance, now it is cheaper to hire for unqualified work persons with activation status than regular employees, and some companies (e.g. municipal cleaning companies) have dismissed their employees and replaced them with individuals from the activation programme. People have lost their jobs as a result of state policy.

An important aspect of an activation programme is its public utility. In the case of the activation programmes implemented in Slovakia many times the work assigned was useless. Everyday cleaning of the same street is an example. It can be presumed that if municipalities were also obliged to financially participate in the programmes, they could have generated more useful types of work. Activation policy could in that case significantly contribute to regional development. Furthermore, participating persons would feel more useful and self-confident.

Another failure of this policy which was observed is the occurrence of corruption. There were some rumours and suspicions that in some municipalities people were appointed not for public interest work, but for personal benefit of the mayor or some other public official. Although this is not a systematic malfunction, it demonstrates the lack of efficient control mechanisms.

Finally, authorities managing the activation programmes have lots of complaints about complications with reimbursement, inefficient communication with local labour offices, etc. On the other hand those complaints we consider minor, as there is still chance of improving the whole system to function more smoothly.

Many of the deficiencies described above were obvious even before the launch of the activation policy. Some of them have occurred during its implementation.

Research conducted by Milan Šimečka Foundation (MSF) in cooperation with the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) established a number of abusive and discriminatory practices by organisers of activation programmes with respect to Roma. Despite the fact that the activation policy did not specifically target Roma, large numbers of Roma were registered for activation activities and in some parts of Slovakia, activation programmes have recruited predominantly Romani individuals. For example, in Brezno, eastern Slovakia, the Technical Service Company employs 275 persons on activations, about 255 of whom are Romani. As a consequence the company is called “the Gypsy Company”.11 In another instance, in Zborov, one man looking for the activation coordinator asked: ‘Where are those who take care of ‘the blacks?”12 Our research has revealed that when the activation positions are being allocated, the worst and lowest status positions are given to Roma. Discrimination exists even in this type of work; it is the Romani participants who are given the most degrading, least attractive and most labour intensive tasks. Some examples documented during the research are provided below:

In Hermanovce, eastern Slovakia, the organiser of activation activity (local municipality) and managing coordinators tolerated the situation of some people sending other persons (in some cases children) to work instead of them. In the same locality as well as in some others, we found that Romani participants complained about the fact that they are assigned to heavier work as compared to non- Roma participants in the activation programme.13 In a few cases reported to the ERRC/MSF researchers in Heľpa and Brezno, central Slovakia, non-Roma had demanded from Roma activation workers to work in their households, for example to do the cleaning in the front of their private houses. As the coordinators of the programme stated – “The result of activations is that the non- Roma became lazy”.14

In Sobrance, eastern Slovakia, the workers are required to clean playgrounds for local football clubs; to work on weekends or after working hours; and to perform private tasks on behalf of managers of the programme or local officials. No compensation has been provided for these activities. People who have complained against such practices, have often been threatened with dismissal. In this village, Romani workers on activations are often used for heavy physical work, e.g. digging canals. While few had the capacity to do such work, some were over-qualified (secondary education) for it. Non-Romani workers are reportedly rarely required to do similar tasks.15

Most of our respondents who worked on activation activity in small towns or villages in Slovakia were dissatisfied with this work and the high degree of dependence on social benefits (material need benefit) and the activation benefits (job-start allowances). Most of the people whom we interviewed stated that they would rather have a regular job than this type of survival job. Some of the respondents admitted that they were able to combine activation activity with informal work (demolition work, digging) or seasonal work (picking of fruits or herbage, recycling). They have no motivation to find regular jobs, especially in regions with high unemployment and low salaries.

When the social policy reform involving reduction of social aid was announced two years ago, the MSF has criticised it, anticipating its impact would be atrocious. We were sceptical about the attainment of the declared goals, namely that the activation policies would reduce the number of unemployed and thus balance the social benefit cuts. Just recently the World Bank presented its findings saying that the amount of people living in risk of poverty is not increasing, but poverty has become more serious, and poor families are even poorer now than before.16

Endnotes:

  1. Laco Oravec is a lawyer. He is director of the Bratislava-based Milan Šimečka Foundation, which works in the area of minority rights and social inclusion. Zuzana Bošelová is an ethnologist. She works as researcher and project manager at the Milan Šimečka Foundation focusing on Roma issues and community development. This article results in part from research arising from a project supported by the European Commission and involving, among other organisations, the ERRC, the Milan Šimečka Foundation, the European Roma Information Office (ERIO) and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF).

  2. See European Anti-Poverty Network. EAPN Position Paper - can activation schemes work for social inclusion? EAPN criteria for ‚good‘ activation, November 25, 2005, available at: http://www.eapn.org/code/en/publ_detail.asp?pk_id_content=1675.

  3. It is difficult to provide any precise data about the rate of unemployment among Roma in Slovakiabecause the government does not collect ethnic data in this area. According to some estimates, the rate of Romani unemployment in 2002, based on personal perception, was 82% and using the ILO definition of unemployment, it was 62%. (See UNDP Regional Human Development Report – Avoiding the Dependency. Trap, Bratislava, December 2002, available at http://roma.undp.sk/) According to some general observations, the unemployment rate in the most excluded Romani settlements is in the range of 95% to 100%. On the other hand, many Roma living in more integrated municipalities are either employed in some local companies or they travel to work in more developed regions of the country or abroad.

  4. See data from the 2001 census of the Slovak population, available at: http://www.statistics.sk/webdata/slov/scitanie/tab/tab.htm.

  5. Based on information provided to the MSF by the State Secretary of Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Family in July 2005.

  6. The Act on Social Assistance in Material Need (Coll. 599/2003) is available in Slovak at: www.zbierka.sk/get.asp?rr=03&zz=03-z599.

  7. This is one of the reasons why the total expenses of Slovak budget assigned to social assistance in material need have dropped for more than 50% since social reform. See daily newspaper SME, 11th November 2005, available at:  http://www.sme.sk/clanok.asp?cl=2540905.

  8. 8 The rate of registered unemployment measured by the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Family in the year 2004 was 14.3%. (http://www.employment.gov.sk/mpsvrsr/internet/home/page.php?id=1490&sID=b84ba2f0cb0feb5ffe6cb415f5648e23); the rate of unemployment for the same period according to the Labor Force Sample Survey collected by the Slovak Statistical Office was 18,1% (http://www.statistics.sk/webdata/english/tab/une/une05a.htm).

  9. The administratively defined maximum of working hours in activation is 20 and the monthly activation payment was fixed initially, at 1,000 SKK and was increased to 1,700 SKK in 2005.

  10. Government resolution 428/2005 Coll.

  11. ERRC/MSF interviews, Brezno, June 2005. ERRC/MSF withheld the names of the individuals interviewed in respect of their wish to provide information on condition of confidentiality.

  12. ERRC/MSF interviews, Zborov, June 2005.

  13. ERRC/MSF interviews, Hermanovce and Heľpa, June 2005.

  14. ERRC/MSF interviews, Heľpa and Brezno, June 2005.

  15. ERRC/MSF interviews, Sobrance, July 2005.

  16. World Bank. Report No. 32422-SK, The Quest for Equitable Growth in Slovak Republic, September 22, 2005, available at: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDS_IBank_Servlet?pcont=details&eid=000160016_20051118100010.

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