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Czech real estate agency fined for refusing to lease to Roma

18.3.2016 14:51
The building of the Czech Trade Inspection Authority (ČOI) in Brno, Czech Republic. (PHOTO:  Jiří Sedláček, Wikimedia Commons)
The building of the Czech Trade Inspection Authority (ČOI) in Brno, Czech Republic. (PHOTO: Jiří Sedláček, Wikimedia Commons)

The Czech Trade Inspection Authority (Česká obchodní inspekce - ČOI) has fined a real estate agent in Brno CZK 20 000 (EUR 740) for discriminating against Romani people interested in leasing housing through them. During a recorded telephone inquiry about an apartment for lease, the broker told the prospective tenants that the building owners did not want Romani people living there.

IQ Roma servis, an NGO that aids Romani people with integrating into society, announced the fine in a press release today but did not include the name of the agency fined. A transcript of the incriminating conversation reads as follows:

Broker:  "I have question... it's a personal one... Are you Roma?"

Caller:  "I think that shouldn't matter at all, that's ok, isn't it?"

Broker:  "Unfortunately, it matters to the owners." 

The test call happened in 2014 when IQ Roma servis employees telephoned brokers at two real estate agencies. In both cases, problem-free agreement lasted only until the brokers learned the prospective tenants were Romani.

After the brokers realized a young Romani couple was expressing interest, they refused to give permission for them to see the apartment advertised. The callers assured the brokers that they were respectable working people, but it made no difference.

IQ Roma servis then filed a motion over the incidents with the ČOI, and said today that the brokers defended their decision by claiming the building owners and other tenants did not want Romani people living there. The ČOI found, the brokerage's behavior broke the law on consumer protection, which says consumers cannot be discriminated against.

The real estate agency defended itself by stating that all it did was accept the wishes of the property owner. Its attorney also considered it unacceptable to use the recording of the telephone conversation, as it had been created in an "undercover" way.

The brokerage's attorney argued that the callers' activity itself bordered on breaking the law and that organizations should be not hiring "agents provocateurs" and developing such activities with the aim of detecting crimes. In its decision, however, the ČOI expressed the opinion that if the evidence acquired thanks to such situational testing was not of a personal, private nature, then it was absolutely legitimate to use it.

The firm must now pay not only the fine, but the costs of bringing the proceedings against it. IQ Roma servis reports that the owner of the second real estate agency called has appealed the ČOI decision.

"The good news is that the Czech Trade Inspection Authority, in its decision, used the transcript of the recorded telephone call from the situational testing performed by IQ Roma servis employees in September 2014 as evidence," said Lucia Barthová of IQ Roma servis. Last year that organization dealt with 66 cases of discrimination.

At the end of February 2016 the ČOI also addressed the case of two nightclubs in Brno. The inspection authority ascertained that Romani customers were not being allowed inside the clubs and that the law on consumer protection may have been violated because of that discrimination.

Other organizations have discovered such discrimination, such as the ROMEA organization in Prague, which discovered during the course of a project to help job-seekers that the Clinea firm refused to employ a Romani woman as a housekeeper. The manager of that firm explained that her clients did not want to hire Romani people.

Overview of consumer discrimination cases that have ended up in court

Even though such treatment of Romani consumers is a common occurrence, according to many Romani activists, cases with Romani plaintiffs do not make it to trial very often. The judicial system did deal with a case from the year 2001 in which a Romani man was not allowed to enter a discotheque in a West Bohemian town and the courts acknowledged that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his ethnicity.

In 2003 a Romani woman sued and won financial compensation after the manager of a residential hotel told her and her male acquaintance there was no vacancy at the facility but then made a two-room apartment available to a non-Romani couple immediately after the Romani couple left. More recently, in 2015 the Litoměřice District Court ruled on the case of a real estate agency that refused to show an apartment to a prospective Romani tenant with the explanation that the lessor did not want Romani people renting it.

The court ordered the business to apologize to the customer but did not award financial compensation. That particular case was also a test involving the Office of the Public Defender of Rights.

Also in 2015, the Czech Constitutional Court ordered the re-opening of a case about Romani people who reserved a hotel in the town of Most in 2006 but were not given rooms after arriving there. According to the original verdict, the plaintiffs did not prove they were discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, but according to the Constitutional Court, doubts persist as to whether the hotel's defense was not merely purpose-built instead of based on facts, so the High Court in Prague will have to review that case again.

The most recent such case was reported on in February 2016, when after five years a Romani family finally received a written apology and compensation for injury to their dignity from a dentist who refused to treat them because of their Romani origin. After their previous dentist retired, the Romani patient made an appointment by telephone with a new dentist for his minor daughter.

Even though there had been no problem during the process of making the appointment, the dentist refused to register them as patients when they arrived and denied that her office had ever agreed to see them on the phone. The dentist has now had to apologize to the family and pay them a total of CZK 30 000 (EUR 1 110) for injury to their dignity. 

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