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Czech Labor Ministry implements social reforms despite protests

Prague, 30.12.2011 12:01, (ROMEA)

The Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry has seen through yet another part of its planned social reforms this year despite protests by labor unions, criticism from the opposition, and the disagreement of the Czech Senate. The main objections raised concerned plans to toughen benefit rules for the unemployed and to introduce "welfare cards". There was also great unease over how cuts to social services subsidies would be distributed. On the other hand, many experts and organizations welcomed the fact that the ministry's new approach toward the care of at-risk children would be clearer.

The social reforms introduced by Czech Labor Minister Jaromír Drábek (TOP 09) will apply as of January. Ministry leadership has described them as a small revolution in the disbursal of state funds. All benefits will be distributed by Labor Offices as of January. This means that not only are municipalities throughout the country losing part of their agenda, they are also losing as many as 1 600 bureaucrats. The minister claims the change should take place without complications and that people will continue to receive their money from the state without any problems. However, critics of the transformation said recently that with a month to go before the transition, labor officer staffers still did not know where they were going to be located or what they were going to work with.

Originally, all benefits were going to be paid out through "welfare cards" as of January. For the time being it seems people will not receive the plastic cards until April at the earliest. Preparation of the system was suspended for three months by the anti-monopoly authority (ÚOHS) so it could review the state tender for providing the cards. The opposition Czech Social Democratic Party had complained to the authority about the process, but the head of the institution said the decision to investigate was sparked at the suggestion of a candidate in the tender. Earlier this month the authority announced the ministry had not violated any rules in selecting a vendor for the system.

The greatest resistance was evidently prompted by the ministry's proposals to toughen up rules governing benefits to the unemployed. Persons who receive severance pay, for example, will no longer receive unemployment benefits immediately. Those who voluntarily leave jobs found for them by the Labor Office without a serious reason will also not have the right to be enlisted on the unemployment rolls. The plan to include persons who are out of work for two months in community service initiatives also prompted a wave of criticism.

The reforms are also changing the parental leave benefit. Parents will be able to draw a total of CZK 220 000 from the state until a child turns four. However, critics say some families who were previously able to receive more money than that under the previous system will now be at a loss. The Czech Senate, which is dominated by the left, rejected most of the proposals it received on this issue and supported only one of Drábek's bills.

Unions are also disturbed by the planned reforms and savings measures. They criticized the bills, saying they would make life worse for most people in the Czech Republic. However, in negotiations with the government they did not usually succeed with their demands. Even a transportation strike in June which halted all trains throughout the country, the metro in Prague, and other mass transit in other cities for 24 hours did not achieve its objective.

The unions were not the only group irritated by the reforms. A council of disabled groups convened a large demonstration in Prague in the spring. Several thousand disabled persons and their loved ones protested against changes in how people's state of health will be evaluated with respect to benefits, against the form the benefits will take, and against the "welfare cards". In the end, representatives of the disabled reached a set of compromises with Drábek.

Social services were also uneasy about the changes. Because of budget cuts, less money has been available to subsidize them. Providers complained that they would have to cut back on their offerings to those in need or close completely because some regional governments had decided to mainly finance only facilities under regional management. The ministry then held off on the plan to have the regional governments become the sole distributor of social services funding.

Despite the country's social services network, experts say the number of ghettos in the country is rising and that mainly Romani people are ending up in them. This past summer the situation came to a head in North Bohemia, with relations sharply deteriorating between long-term non-Romani residents and Romani ones. Police sent reinforcements to the region to calm unrest. Some experts have emphasized that what lies behind the difficulties is not an ethnic problem, but mainly a social one.

During 2011 the ministry completed a bill on changes to the care of abandoned and at-risk children and drafted an amendment to legislate rules for such care. The ministry wants to do more to support foster families. The Czech Republic has long been criticized by international institutions over the high number of children growing up in state care in the country. Drábek's ministry began preparations this year to introduce professional foster care for a transition period and intends to gradually shift the funding for state-run children's homes toward assistance for both original and foster families.

ČTK, Gwendolyn Albert, Czech Press Agency, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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