Tackling the Systemic Exclusion of Roma from Employment

31 March 2006

Savelina Danova-Russinova

The massive and disproportionate exclusion of Roma from employment is an undisputed reality in many countries. This fact raises serious human rights concerns about the failure of governments to curb racial discrimination in employment as well as to undertake proactive measures to confront disadvantages facing Roma at the labour market. In addition to rights concerns, the fact that significant numbers of people of working age, especially in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe with large Romani populations, are not participating in the national economy, should be a matter of serious concern from economic development point of view. Yet, judging by their inaction and often resistance to act to remedy exclusion of Roma from employment, most governments do not seem to be disturbed about the losses incurred in various sectors of the economy. Such inaction seems even more paradoxical in the light of mounting public complaints that Roma are a major burden for social welfare systems.

Recent ERRC research in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, undertaken with the support of the European Commission, indicate that policies to tackle unemployment of Roma are limited in scope and do not result in any noticeable improvement of the position of Roma in the labour market. In some countries, such as Slovakia, governments proceeded with what appears to be the easiest solution – to reduce the amount of the social benefits as a means of discouraging dependence on state support. This measure, although not targeting Roma specifically, has had a disproportionate impact on Roma. As is demonstrated by the analysis of the Slovak activation policies by Laco Oravec and Zuzana Bošelová in this edition, the effect of the social aid reduction was more punitive in nature than effective in stimulating return of individuals to the labour market, because it was not coupled with adequate labour market inclusion policies. Similar is the situation in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, in which although governments admit that education and lack of qualification place Roma in disadvantaged position, measures undertaken to mitigate the effects of poorer education are almost non-existent. In most cases, what governments call active labour market programmes do not involve training and re-qualification of Roma, or they do so only insignificantly. Existing programmes feature generally only temporary subsidized employment, at the end of which Roma who have participated do not have better chances to return to the labour market. In most cases they do not return. An article on a successful model of a labour market integration programme for Roma in Spain, presented by the Fundación Secretariado Gitano, demonstrates that outside active labour market policies, there are a host of measures which can give positive effect to increasing the employability of Roma.

One reason for governments’ failure to undertake proactive measures to challenge the exclusion of Roma from employment is the widespread conviction that the fact that Roma do not work is their fault and is the consequence of poor education and lack of motivation to find work. The presumption is that employment opportunities are equally accessible for everyone, and if Roma are not taking advantage of these it is due to objective reasons – low education, as well as subjective reasons – conscious choices to live from state support rather than work. Both these explanations bear some truth: low education – the effect of a number of decades of segregated inferior education of Roma – is indeed a barrier to employment. For the long-term unemployed, loss of motivation can be a factor contributing to exclusion from employment. The abundant evidence of raw racial discrimination against Roma on the labour market however shows that such an approach to the factors conditioning disproportionate unemployment of Roma is simplistic and counterproductive in the sense that it does not result in meaningful policies to tackle widespread patterns of discrimination. Courts in Bulgaria and Hungary have recently ruled against employers who discriminated against Romani job applicants. ERRC research, including a 2005 study of discrimination against Roma at the labour market, shows that employment is inaccessible for many Roma due to often undisguised rejection of Roma on grounds of ethnicity. A summary of that research, written by Ann Hyde, is provided in these pages.

Racial discrimination against Roma on the labour market is currently not an issue high on the agenda of governments. Efforts to fight direct discrimination – the everyday rejection of Roma from work as a result of their ethnicity – are only rudimentary. Actions to equalise opportunities for Roma to access the labour market by implementing positive action programmes are also only in their infancy. Employers in the public and private sector alike are not under serious threat of financial loss in case of discrimination, because sanctions imposed by anti-discrimination laws are usually not dissuasive, especially for larger companies. Furthermore, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, employers – public and private – are not bound by, let alone monitored for, carrying out more proactive measures to ensure diversity at the workplace. In some countries, notably the UK and Ireland, the limitations of the mere negative duty not to discriminate have been acknowledged and public bodies, and in Northern Ireland also private employers, are bound by a statutory duty to actively engage in promoting equality between racial or ethnic groups. The effects of this legal measure, as well as of positive action in the field of employment, are discussed in this issue by Erika Szyszczak. A document summarising policy and law in Northern Ireland is also included here.


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