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Czech NGO working with Roma says state is punishing the poor and motivating them through fear

17.2.2017 14:51
Public works, Czech Republic, February 2017. (PHOTO:  bau)
Public works, Czech Republic, February 2017. (PHOTO: bau)

From the beginning of February an amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress has been in effect in the Czech Republic. In addition to other matters, the amendment establishes that the aid provided to those in material distress (the minimum subsistence allowance) shall be reduced by roughly one-third for people who have been unemployed for one year and have not performed at least 20 hours of unremunerated work per month for their local authority's public works department.

The author of the amendment was Czech Senator Jaroslav Zeman (Civic Democratic Party - ODS). The IQ Roma servis NGO has published its opinion of the amendment and news server Romea.cz publishes it here in full translation.

Opinion of IQ Roma servis about publc works employment in the context of the amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress

The new public works:  Old paradigm, begone

Labor Offices throughout the Czech Republic this month have begun to enforce in practice the so-called "performance of public works". This is having a new influence on the amount of benefits awarded for subsistence - the basic benefit for those in material distress that the state pays to people who will not have enough money to live on after covering their housing costs.

A person living on benefits is now newly eligible to apply for the minimum subsistence allowance only if he or she works a minimum of 20 hours a month for the local authority. If the person works 30 hours a month, he or she will receive CZK 605 (EUR 22) above and beyond the minimum subsistence allowance.

This is supposed to be a motivating element to bolster people's work habits. The amendment upholds a paradigm that is frequently formulated by political representatives as follows:  "We must force the idlers who are living on our benefits to begin working."

This rhetoric appears most frequently before elections, along with references to how much all those lazy, unemployed people cost the rest of us, and it is appearing more and more often. Politicians do not publicly discuss exclusion, poverty, or the solutions to those problems that are necessary, but punishments for those who do not work.

Public works punishes those who "dare to be poor" and bolsters stereotypes

The public works concept publishes those who "dare to be poor." It inspires ideas about "parasites" - and IQ Roma servis is concerned that most people here equate that notion with "dark-skinned parasites - especially Roma" - who are allegedly abusing all the rest of us (allegedly) honest people.

A subsistence allowance + EUR 22 for 30 hours of work is no motivation

We do not believe these public works, as designed, are a motivational instrument. The best external motivational tool for people who do not have the good fortune to do what they actually want to do, what fulfills them, is customarily the salary or wage they receive for their work.

To make a susbistence allowance plus EUR 22 for 30 hours of participation in public works is not motivating - it is ridiculous. Who among us would be glad to work of our own free will for such an income?

The motivation is fear

It is highly questionable whether work habits can be created in this way. In such a case, the motivation for going to a job is not to increase one's standard of living, or to achieve self- realization through work - rather, it is just unemployed people's fear of losing even the bare minimum of the welfare they already draw, or that they will be excluded from the official list of job seekers for allegedly obstructing their cooperation with the authorities.

Concerns that those now working for municipalities as janitors and in other positions will be fired

In recent years, municipalities have abolished their public works departments and been forced to begin to address public maintenance through ordinary employment contracts. In the Czech Republic, the minimum wage is, for the time being, so low that anybody working for that wage who has a family must frequently access other income to even reach the minimum subsistence level - but at least they are working for a wage and the Labor Code protects them.

These people are also able to demonstrate to their employers what their capabilities are and to get a better job or more money as a result. We are concerned that with the arrival of the new public works system, some municipalities will fire their existing employees or not renew their contracts because it will be much cheaper to exploit those in the public works system for this labor.

This means that a measure that is supposed to motivate people to seek work could, paradoxically, lead to a growth in unemployment among low-income persons. The jobs on offer for persons who do not have very much education or intellectual competence are very restricted.

If municipalities begin to cut costs and fire those who have done this work to date, those people's options of finding new, similar jobs in their places of residence will be very low, because commuting to work is financially demanding. They will become unemployed and - in accordance with the recent remarks of Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Marksová' - they will be punished for their unemployment:  "Anybody employable and healthy who is receiving aid for those in material distress under the circumstances of our unemployment rate being the lowest in Europe - that person is probably avoiding work. Now if they don't work, their welfare will be affected."

IQ Roma servis is concerned that the planned reduction of investments into public benefit work will also be absolutely counterproductive. Such investments could be, over the course of two years, used to fund better-targeted mentoring, more comprehensive personal development, and professional qualification (or requalification) training along with appropriate development as a springboard for the younger generation of our clients in particular.

An actual solution: Motivational salaries and practices that make it worthwhile for indebted people to work

If the ministers were more interested in solving the problem of poverty and less interested in punishing the poor, they would be taking an interest in the trafficking in housing for the poor and socially excluded, in the low wages that drive those earning them to apply for welfare, and in the catastrophic overindebtedness of some families that can no longer be resolved and is becoming, paradoxically, a permanent block tho their entering the labor market despite their interest in working. An actual solution would significantly increase the minimum wage and other mechanisms so the difference between benefits and a salary would really be motivating - and would open up the advantages of legal work to indebted persons.

Stop demotivating youth and support their development

Instead of new restrictive measures, the way to create work habits, especially among young people about to enter the labor market, is for children who live with their parents and study to be able, once they reach working age, to keep all the money they earn from such occasional work. Currently that income is assessed by the state as the joint asset of their household.

If students are looking for occasional work, or if youth live with parents who are in material distress, then the child's income is considered common property and the welfare benefits paid to the household are reduced by the amount the child earns. This does not motivate youth from impoverished families to find work!

Frequently, when entering the labor market, youth imagine they will be able to become independent of their parents and find their own housing. They will never manage that, however, if they are unable to save up for a deposit for an apartment lease.

These youth remain, therefore, living with their parents and unable to afford to do anything with their earnings. That strongly reduces youth motivation to work and leads to them registering with the Labor Office as unemployed, while many work "under the table".

The Labor Office then does its best to exclude such people from its lists for the slightest infraction and assumes the role of an auditor of their lives. Recently we have begun to suspect that in smaller municipalities, some Labor Office staffers have agreed with some big employers that they will basically collaborate on making sure certain people are excluded from the lists as a form of sanction, instead of developing their potential.

More than once we have seen employers communicating with the Labor Office about a client of ours and alleging that a job-seeker "deliberately failed the entrance exam" or "did not behave appropriately during the intake interview". Defending oneself against this approach is problematic - the job-seeker's defense is never taken seriously.

These people are then excluded from the benefit rolls as a sanction, and their family becomes financially endangered because the job-seeker cannot access certain benefits, which directly pushes them toward illegal employment. This is even more instructively visible in the case of students - the same high school students that are urged by social workers to find summer jobs.

The students want to work, like any other adolescent, to buy new clothes or a mobile phone. However, if the student's family is in material distress, the earnings of each household member must be reported, and 70 % of the student's earnings will be included in the benefit calculations.

Students, therefore, have no choice but to give part of their earnings to their parents. One the one hand, this does not motivate occasional work (or the creation of work habits, or the experience of being rewarded for work), and on the other hand parents frequently oppose their child going to work because it is unacceptable to them to be supported by a child who is still attending compulsory education.

Public works: Different perspective, new paradigm!

It seems that the current design of public works is not counting on the option of rewarding people for community development or volunteering. This is unfortunate.

It may not be as easy to measures the results of such work as it is to check whether a sidewalk has been swept, but it might be more meaningful. All people, even if they are not working, continue to be full-fledged, important members of society and can contribute their own part to it within the realm of their possibilities.

IQ Roms servis very much insists that a new begining paradigm is needed for public works. It must not be conceived of negatively as frustrating part of society.

Public works must not involve a degrading stigma, and it must not become second-class "forced labor," or harassment, or an instrument for labor contracts being closed and never reopened for existing employees (such as municipal janitors and maintenance jobs) or for those in community service. The remuneration for active people who contribute to the development and prosperity of our society should also be higher.

Public works with IQ Roma servis

IQ Roma servis offers serious candidates an opportunity to collaborate, through public works, in a different form than is currently the case. This opportunity is not offered in the spirit of "Get a broom and clean up", "Do this or that without context or contribution", but in the spirit of "Come do your part to develop your local community, park, or street. Your ideas and skills are interesting to us, let's implement your ideas together - you, yourself, have the opportunity and the power to contribute to good changes and developments."

We will be providing joint counseling, for these purposes and those of community development, on how to equally involve the participants in public works into the planning and preparation of the work, and our support, trainings and workshops will be part of their performing this role. Give our current capacity (the number of  our employees who will have enough time to coordinate those participating and pay good attention to them) we will begin this form of collaboration with approximately 10 people per month and then assess further expansion according to people's interest and our own options.

"We will be focusing on our target group with the option of choosing and selecting the job seekers we work with. We want to offer public works as a form of inviting all who are interested, who are responsible, and who want to change something for the better to contribute to that development and participate in improving conditions around them. We have long collaborated with many active Romani men and women who take the initiative to get involved on their own, of their own free will, spontaneously, as volunteers, because they simply care about how their community is prospering. We do have hope that, through the correct approach and take on this issue, which is facilitated in specific cases through informal education, community development can be supported and the empowerment, self-reliance and solidarity that is so necessary can be developed," says IQ Roma servis director Mgr. Katarína Klamková.

bau, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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IQ Roma servis, novela, Práce, zákon o hmotné nouzi



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