Systemic Exclusion of Roma from Employment

31 March 2006

Systemic Exclusion of Roma from Employment1

Ann Hyde2

The majority of working age Roma in Central and Southeastern Europe do not have a job and many have been out of work for a considerable length of time. Growing numbers, especially young people, have never had a job. Recent multi-country research by the ERRC based on structured narrative interviews with a total of 402 working age individuals, documents massive systemic discrimination in the area of employment, discrimination more serious than previously suspected.

The mass-unemployment of working age Roma is most often perceived as a labour market supply- side issue and the high level of unemployment is attributed to Roma’s inability to find employment because of their low levels of education; out-of-date work skills and detachment from the labour market. Also because large segments of the Romani community lost out during the economic and industrial restructuring that occurred during the transition from Communism. Undoubtedly, these factors create very real barriers that reduce employability and exclude many Roma from work but there is another dimension – discrimination – which significantly aggravates the situation and causes systemic exclusion from employment for vast numbers of working-age Roma.

Discrimination is not widely acknowledged as a major factor behind Romani unemployment, and when the issue is raised there is often strong resistance to discuss the subject or denial that the problem is sufficiently severe to demand attention. Employment discrimination against Roma is not considered a major determinant in the employment (or more importantly the non-employment) of Roma by the key actors in the labour market.

Recent research by ERRC, based on field research in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, offers new information that augments and helps to fill some of the gaps in the knowledge base about Roma in the labour market. It reveals a number of key facts about the patterns of employment and unemployment in the Romani working age population and provides evidence that refutes most of the commonly held prejudiced opinions about the attitudes and commitment of Roma to work. It shows that very real barriers to employment are intensified by prejudiced and stereotypical views such as the comment made by the director of a Labour Office in Prague, who told the ERRC:

It’s because of the Romani culture and their lifestyle; they do not fit with the discipline of work. Roma do not have the motivation to work; they are unreliable, lazy and prefer to live on social assistance than earn a living.3

Discrimination is exercised at more or less every junction in the labour market and the already serious barriers that prevent access to employment for many Roma are significantly aggravated by prejudiced behaviour and views that unemployment and worklessness is a situation that most, if not all, Roma have chosen and are happy to live with both now and in the past.

The Key Facts Emerging From the Research

The Gap Between Employment and Unemployment

  • Two out of every three working age Roma are currently unemployed, this means that only one in three currently has a job. Of those out of work, 35% fit the description of long-term unemployed as they have been out of work for a year or more and a staggering one in three working age Roma have had a period of unemployment lasting five years or more.
  • Most of the working age Roma interviewed have had a period in employment. But only about one-third of working age Roma are currently in work. This employment rate is significantly lower than the figure for the working age population as a whole – in 2004 the employment rate for people aged 15-64 was 63%,4 in the twentyfive European Union (EU) member states.  
  • Given the opportunity, and like the majority of the working age population, Roma will keep the same job for a considerable length of time. Almost 50% of working age Roma reported periods of continuous employment which lasted five years or more. About two-thirds have had continuous employment of periods exceeding one year. These results contradict, and go some way to dispel the negative and prejudiced view that Roma are unreliable and do not keep steady jobs.
  • There is a distinct polarisation in the patterns of employment and unemployment for working age Roma. At one end there are those Roma who are, or who have been working in jobs for a significant length of time. At the other end are Roma who have been unemployed and out of work for a very long time. When a Romani individual loses their job and becomes unemployed, they run a very high risk of remaining out of work for a very long time, possibly years.

The Kind of Work that Roma Do

  • Roma are very clear about their position on the labour market, and most search for work that is at the lower unskilled end of the labour market where jobs are menial and low paid. However, these are usually highly competitive positions with a rapid turnover and being filled by employers who are quick to absorb cheap and unofficial workers. 

I am a qualified cook. I was made redundant when the firm I had been employed by for many years was closed down. So I applied and was hired to work as a cook in a spa resort but there was an important condition the person in charge of recruitment imposed: I would be hired as a cook and perform my duties on the basement floor where I could not be seen by doctors and patients. (ERRC interview, Czech Republic, May 2005)5 

  • The type of work that Roma do is very closely correlated with their low levels of education – 68% of those in work confirmed that they are in employment which reflects their educational attainment levels. Unskilled and skilled labouring, which includes jobs as tailors and machine workers and the like, and cleaning are by far the most common employment categories. By far the least common is work in shops, offices, restaurants, hotels, teaching and professional managerial positions.
  • One in every three Roma in our survey who consider that they are currently in a job are actually participating in some form of public works or government funded job creation scheme rather than in employment in the primary labour market. 
  • Only some 16% of those in employment are in “informal” employment, which in this research means casual, without a contract and not paying tax; a figure that also contradicts the popular belief that most Roma work in the informal shadow economy. 
  • Very small numbers of Roma work in restaurant/ hotel type work or in shops, which is surprising given that these types of occupations usually offer some unqualified opportunities for people at the lower end of the labour market. The evidence provides a strong case that employment discrimination is preventing Roma from being employed in jobs which involve contact with the public or with the preparation or service delivery of food. 

I am a qualified cook. I was made redundant when the firm I had been employed by for many years was closed down. So I applied and was hired to work as a cook in a spa resort but there was an important condition the person in charge of recruitment imposed: I would be hired as a cook and perform my duties on the basement floor where I could not be seen by doctors and patients. (ERRC interview, Czech Republic, May 2005)

  • The relationship between education and better employment is reinforced by the research as university educated Roma are in employment at the higher end of the labour market; working in either office work, teaching or skilled work. Conversely, not all Roma in professional or managerial positions achieved higher levels of education.

Discrimination against Roma at the Labour Market 

  • The most prevalent incidence of employment discrimination against Roma is at the job search stage and in the recruitment practices that companies apply. Raw, direct discrimination prevents applicants from even reaching the phase of the interview. Many companies have a total exclusion policy regarding the employment of Roma and practice across-the-board unmitigated discrimination against Romani applicants. As a result, Romani job-seekers are eliminated and excluded from the application process at the very outset; regardless of education, qualifications and competences for the job.
  • Out of 402 interviewed, 257 Romani individuals of working age have experienced discrimination in employment. The situation is almost twice as bad for Roma in the five countries targeted by the research where two out of every three working age Roma are likely to experience employment discrimination, than for ethnic minorities in the 11 countries in Europe and North America, that were surveyed by the ILO and found to have discrimination rates of up to 35%.6
  • When asked ‘How do you know it was because you are Roma’, almost one in two people said they had been openly told by the employer or someone in the company and in addition 20 individuals were told by the labour office. Therefore more than half of all Roma who reported that they have experienced employment discrimination know for sure that their ethnicity, the fact they are Romani, has prohibited and reduced their chances of getting a job.

Before setting off to attend a job interview I called the potential employer to make sure that the position was still free. I was assured that nothing had changed and that they were looking forward to seeing me. As soon as I entered the office they told me that I had wasted my time as they do not employ Roma. (ERRC interview, Slovakia, July 2005) 
At my local employment office I found an announcement that a factory was hiring eight unskilled workers. I went along with a friend for a job but they told us they had no jobs available. On our way back we met two Romanian friends (non-Roma) who were also going to apply having seen the same announcement. We told them the jobs had gone. But they went to the factory anyway and they were hired. (ERRC interview, Romania, September 2005)

The incidence of discrimination in employment was not as frequently reported as the discriminatory practices that prevent access to employment. But discrimination in employment is notoriously difficult to prove and frequently goes unreported and unchallenged for fear that action will jeopardise individuals’ employment status. Inequality in employment is nonetheless a serious problem for Roma, as some 1 in 4 of those who are, or have, been in employment reported that they received lesser terms and conditions of employment than non-Romani counterparts doing the same job.

The most common differential in terms and conditions of employment took place in relation to remuneration – rates of pay. Over half of respondents who reported some form of inequality in employment claimed that they either received lower rates of pay or were denied the opportunity to work overtime.

Many Roma who are in employment find that their opportunities are severely constrained by an invisible ‘Glass Box’7 which limits their opportunities to progress upwards, sideways or to obtain employment that is not connected to the delivery of services for other Romani people. For example in Slovakia, where a higher incidence of university educated Roma was reported than in other countries, nearly all are employed in Roma related work in the Social Development Fund,8 as Roma social workers or in the office of government specialising on Roma issues. A quote from the research was that “Roma with higher education can only get work in Roma-specific areas; otherwise they would probably be unemployed like most Roma.”

The Perpetrators of Discrimination

Despite existing equality legislation that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, many companies appear unconcerned and take no positive measures to ensure that they comply with the legislation or ensure that equality in employment is functioning in the hiring and employment. It is clear that enterprises, no matter whether they are in the private or public sector, are making very little effort to actively apply an equal opportunity or diversity policy. Even multi-national companies from Western Europe and the USA with branch offices in Central and Southeastern Europe, where the law will have required them to observe and monitor employment equality policies, seem content to hide behind national claims in Central and Southeastern Europe that it is illegal to monitor the ethnic diversity of their workforce.

Two-thirds out of 43 employers interviewed claim that they have an equal opportunities/ diversity policy in place but none could provide a detailed explanation of how the procedures operate. Similarly, none of the companies could provide information about how they monitor the ethnic composition of their workforce. Most claim that they do not measure because it is illegal to monitor ethnicity.

The public sector is one of the largest employers in each country especially government ministries, but even in the public institutions there is no evidence of a proactive approach to guarantee equality of opportunity in employment.

There is no evidence that Government Ministries are reflecting the positive methods adopted by their counterparts in Government Departments in the old EU Member States. Nor are they taking steps to ensure that their recruitment and employment practices are free from direct and indirect discrimination and compliant with the EU Employment and Race Directives. At best, some make special advisory positions on Roma related issues available for qualified Roma.

There is strong evidence of institutional racism in the labour office structures in Central and Eastern Europe. During the ERRC interviews with labour offices, what emerged was a transparent display of the racism and entrenched prejudice that exists and was openly and freely expressed.9 The entrenched negative stereotypes of those working in public institutions, at the front-line of dealing with Roma unemployment, bring into question their capacity to deliver an unbiased and professional service that is not distorted by their prejudiced views. In fact, labour offices were reported to be the least effective means of finding a job. In many instances labour office officials have reportedly condoned discrimination against Roma respecting employers’ request not to offer positions to Romani job seekers.

Emily’s girlfriend works for the local labour office and she showed her on the labour office computer screen, job offers where the employer did not want Roma people had an “R” flag to signify that no Roma were employed by the company. Joseph, from the same town, also reported that the local labour office only made placements to the locations where the “R” flag was missing from the name of the company. (ERRC interview, Hungary, August 2005)

An experienced cleaner was sent by the labour office to a bank that was advertising
for part-time cleaning staff. She arrived on time for interview, but the bank
representative on seeing her told her the jobs had been taken. Later the labour office
again announced the same job opportunity; but this time they apparently followed the bank’s signal that no Roma would get the jobs. Later the woman heard the job had been given to non-Romani students. (ERRC interview, Hungary, August 2005)

The attitude and behaviour of many labour office officials compounds the problem of employment discrimination against Roma. Although many labour office officials defend their actions on the basis of efficiency and compassion, to save an individual from the humiliation of being rejected and refused the job, their passive behaviour sends the wrong message to employers. Their laissez-faire attitude and failure to challenge employers who refuse to hire Roma is making an unacceptable situation even worse.

Labour office officials argue that affirmative action is not necessary because discrimination does not exist, and the only reason that Roma do not have jobs is their lack of education and their different attitudes to employment.10 It was not unusual for the labour office officials to imply that the current hierarchy in the jobs market, which ensures that non-Roma get selected for jobs before Roma, is the right one – the way it should be. Statements such as, “After all there are many unemployed; Czechs, Slovaks; Bulgarians, etc. who are also searching and can’t find work,” confirm these widely held beliefs.

Furthermore, the services that labour offices provide are not meeting the needs of Romani job seekers. The shortcoming in the services and the lack of connection between unemployed Roma and labour offices is unacceptable given the role that labour offices have in linking out of work people with job vacancies and with government, and donor-funded employment and training opportunities.

The behaviour of the labour market gatekeepers has a very real impact on the opportunities that are made available to unemployed Roma trying to re-enter the labour market. But there is no comprehensive understanding amongst labour market gatekeepers – employers, human resource personnel and labour office officials – that their behaviour is one of the major contributors resulting in systemic exclusion from employment for vast numbers of working-age Roma.

Tackling Employment Discriminatio

The ERRC research provides evidence and draws on experience from other EU countries to show that a mixture of: strong anti-discrimination legislation when it is vigorously enforced; equality policies which contain very clear directives and a convincing level of compulsion; and a public equality authority that monitors enforcement of the public duty to promote equality can be successful to contain, constrain and reduce discriminatory behaviour of employers and their employees.

There is strong evidence, from countries with the most effective measures to combat racial discrimination in employment, that workforce monitoring, including the collection of data on ethnicity, is a key means of obtaining statistical evidence to support positive actions to address under-representation of ethnic groups in the workplaces and more generally in specific occupations and sectors of the labour market. Monitoring, recording, reporting and responding to the ethnic composition of a workplace are key factors that guarantee the effectiveness and efficiency of equal opportunities policies. For example, mandatory monitoring and compulsory reporting of workforce composition on the basis of nationality, ethnic group and any other grounds of discrimination (religion in the case of Northern Ireland) has proven to be a significant lever that motivated improved access to the employment for a victimized group.11

Employment discrimination is more pervasive and insidious than the basic numbers suggest, especially when it is as blatant and explicitly exercised as the cases described by Roma who took part in the ERRC research. Achieving equality in employment for Roma will take a considerable length of time; it requires widespread commitment and cooperation across all strands of the labour market. The situation is critical and the problem demands immediate attention from Governments as well as legislators, policy makers, employers and drivers of change; from the Equality Bodies charged with the responsibility of enforcing and stimulating compliance; and from employers who are in the position to guarantee recruitment practices and workplaces that are free of discrimination.


  1. This article summarises the results of a research on discrimination against Roma in the labour market conducted by the ERRC in the period May-September, 2005 in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. The full research findings will be published in April 2006. The research was part of the transnational project “Advocacy Action in Favour of the Promotion of the Integration of Roma in Education and Employment”, implemented by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) in partnership with the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) and the European Roma Information Office (ERIO). The project is funded by the European Union and is part of the EU Community Action Programme to Combat Discrimination 2001-2006. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.
  2. Ann Hyde is a labour market and social inclusion specialist. She is an ERRC senior consultant on the research project mapping out discriminatory practices against Roma in the labour market.
  3. ERRC interview, May 2005, Prague.
  4. In the countries included in the research the rates were as follows – 54.2% in Bulgaria; 64.4% in Czech Republic; 56.8% in Hungary; 57.7% in Romania; and 57% in Slovakia. Source Eurostat, Labour Force Survey 2004 News Release Number 112/2005 at website
  5. To encourage open disclosure of information, the research interviews allowed for anonymity of individual respondents. The examples cited in this article are extracts from the Country Research Reports prepared and submitted by the research team in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. The lists of Roma interviewed during the course of the research and the questionnaires have been retained and are accessible from the ERRC.
  6. See International Labour Organisation. “Challenging Discrimination in Employment: A Summary of Research and A Compendium of Measures”, October 2000, available at:
  7. The “Glass Box” metaphor is an analogy to the “Glass Ceiling” used to describe the invisible factors that limited the progress of women and ethnic minorities into senior positions.
  8. The Social Development Fund, is a state institution funded by the Slovak state and the European Social Fund. The aim of the SDF is to improve the inclusion of groups at risk and marginalised groups and enable access to economic opportunities and social services.
  9. In all cases ERRC interviews were not with low level public employees, but with either the Director or their representative, usually accompanied by other senior labour office officials.
  10. This is an amalgam of the different views expressed when labour office officials were asked their opinion about positive action to guarantee unemployed Romani people access to government training programmes and/ or jobs. A similar point was made in all the labour office interviews carried out during the course of this research.
  11. Experience from Northern Ireland, relating to discrimination against Catholics in the labour force in the sixties and seventies, is comparable to the systemic exclusion from employment that many Roma in Central and South Eastern Europe currently experience.


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