Czech Republic: Young adults inherit debt from day one
News server Peníze.cz has published an interview with Alena Zieglerová, who worked for many years as the head of the Labor Office in the Czech town of Most. She knows the Chanov housing estate, which has a large Romani population, and the problems of people "on the margins" of society firsthand.
Zieglerová is now focused on addressing unemployment at the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, a national-level authority responsible for an unpopular task, aiding the inclusion of "socially excluded" people "back into society". The very formulation of the issue is touchy in and of itself.
News server Romea.cz presents in translation below the first half of this interview with Zieglerová, first published by Peníze.cz on 25 January. In it she discusses the problems of people living in so-called socially excluded localities who are also unemployed in the long term, as well as the problem of children inheriting debt when they reach majority.
Q: When you worked at the Labor Office in Most, the purpose of your work was to address unemployment, just as it is today. Was joining the Agency a move away from more practical involvement in this issue?
A: It was a logical move. The Labor Office operates within a certain precinct and can't go beyond those limits. If it only works along the lines of motivation (re-qualification) work, then that's not enough, because that ignores everything else. People need to have a place to live, they need to resolve their family relationships, their dependencies, etc. The Labor Office does not have that kind of work in its competency. The only chance there is to achieve results for very disadvantaged people is collaboration, connection between various actors and organizations - the Labor Office, the municipality, nonprofits... It's not as simple as saying "give people jobs" and then it's sorted. It's a much more complicated process. The Agency is doing its best to take a comprehensive approach.
Q: Which regions are currently worst-off when it comes to unemployment? Where is the problem likely to "explode" in future?
A: The regions that are best-known for being afflicted with high unemployment are the Moravian-Silesian and Ústecký Regions. No one doubts that. Where is the problem likely to explode? In all of the estranged regions along our borders where there is a lack of regional development, i.e., something capable of creating more jobs. These are the marginal areas of the republic, rural areas where traditional branches of industry are dying out or going bankrupt and nothing new is coming in to replace them - and mainly, no new ideas are coming there. Regional development, let's say at regional level, does not function in such as way as to target support to such places. Everything is still targeted to the centers. That's a mistake in terms of the future, but the results have yet to manifest. These places will become blank spaces on the map where there is no reason to live.
Q: Is the following equation valid: Places with the highest unemployment = places where the most social tensions are smouldering and where there is a risk of social conflicts, as we have seen in recent years, for example, in the Šluknov area?
A: I wouldn't put an "equals sign" there. What happened in Šluknov was not just about unemployment, but about the overall deterioration in the living situation for most residents and their search for an easy scapegoat. Jobs dying off is one thing. Another is that wages have not risen, but the cost of living has, rents have been deregulated, etc. It's more complex. However, it is a fact that in places with high unemployment, more problems usually do accumulate, because unemployment has its causes and consequences, which do generate greater social tensions.
Q: So there is the socially excluded individual and its opposite, social inclusion, which is the purpose of your work. This is being discussed with great frequency here, but these are basically terribly abstract concepts. How do you interpret them? Don't just give me a definition either.
A: There is no "typical" socially excluded person. It's basically a problem to say we are "including" someone into society - after all, where was that person living before? The difficulty is that some people do not have the same chances as others in many areas. This often begins in childhood, with their access to education and housing... but it also has to do with whether there is poor infrastructure in the place where they live. They are far from the centers of any kind of development, shopping, anything you can imagine that is needed for a satisfactory life. They have worse access to the labor market. Usually everyone in a marginalized region suffers, more or less. The purpose of the work of the Agency is to help those regions find a systemic approach to improving access to the necessities of life for the entire population in a region, and that improves the quality of life of the most disadvantaged as well.
Q: There are two groups of arguments competing in the long-running dispute that these social conflicts are now bringing to a head. The socially excluded say "We want to work but no one will employ us." The others say "Whoever wants to work will find a job - 'they' really just want to live on welfare." You are intimately familiar with this problem - are both of these arguments cliche?
A: First, it is a total myth that whoever wants to work will find a job, especially in some regions. However, I would say that myth is rife in our society. When we look at the numbers for the whole republic, there are fewer jobs available than there are job seekers. It's clear that one must compete for a job, strive to attain one. If a person is competing who is disadvantaged in some way, whether that be his address, the number of children he has, or his skin color, then he falls further behind in that competition and there is a need to intervene somehow. One thing is legislation, we do have an anti-discrimination law. Its application is another matter entirely. The culture of society, however, is probably the most important thing. There is a need for the public administration to ensure what is justifiably expected of it: That everyone enjoys the same opportunity to get a job if they want one.
Q: What about the other group of arguments?
A: As far as "no one" employing me, that's also an extreme position. As I said, this is about competition for employment on the labor market. However, here I must also say that the labor market is not comprised of two equal parties. One is significantly weaker, and that is the party of the job-seekers. The employers are stronger, they select those who seem expedient, those who are safe bets at first glance. For example, it is safer for them to employ a man than a woman with young children. That's why Labor Offices here have always been more oriented toward the weaker side, the job seekers, since the 1990s. However, I think we have been too focused on that area. The side of the employers has been basically ignored - or to take another extreme, they are all but adored. The employer is the lord and master and we will do anything and everything for him. That's unbalanced. Both sides must be satisfied. When the Agency sets up a system, it always takes care to make sure it is expedient for both sides - the employee and the employer.
Q: When I was in the ghetto of Předlice, people there spoke of racial discrimination a great deal. Once they say their surnames during a telephone interview for a job, the interview is over. If their surnames are not that revealing and they make it to an interview in person, then once someone sees they are Romani, it's over. Have you also encountered that kind of open display of discrimination at the Labor Office?
A: I have. Before employers became as well-oriented about this as they are now, they did not hesitate to write down the reasons why they didn't want a certain applicant. Naturally, even back then it was a crime to do that, but what is more important than the law is the culture, that it even occurs to people in the first place that they have entrenched prejudices. This then affects the job seekers, they stop trying. It's no surprise - anyone would be dissuaded by that. It's a very frequent phenomenon in professions requiring low levels of qualification. For positions that require more qualifications, skin color stops playing a role. We had a colleague at the Labor Office, a high school girl who went on to graduate in legal and social work, and everyone was glad to be able to employ her, as a Romani woman, in the social work arena, it was an advantage for her. When it comes to college graduates, it's probably all the same who they are, but for positions with low qualifications, Romani people are always the last hired. That's not a cliche. That's how it works in practice.
Q: What can be done about that?
A: The system should include an employment assistant, someone who accompanies job seekers to interviews, an intermediary who initially arranges with an employer to send them, for example, four people with certain skills. That helps overcome these barriers. The employers also welcome it, because it means they aren't dealing with an unknown quantity. They know someone is guaranteeing the people and that they will be able to try them out. If you make that possible for an employer, then (particularly in combination with wage subsidies) it essentially always turns out well. There are also social enterprises here that focus directly on employing disadvantaged people and can serve as a transitional phase in the shift to working for an ordinary employer.
Q: In reality it is often not true that socially excluded people do not work. They do work, but under the table. That's related, among other things, to the fact that they tend to be indebted, doing their best to avoid having their wages garnished. This is a vicious circle - can it be disrupted?
A: This must become part of serious debate inside the public administration. We cannot pretend this doesn't exist. We cannot pretend that when people are registered with the Labor Office and refuse employment (which naturally they are not permitted to do openly, but when they are simply passive) that it's because they like sitting at home on the couch watching TV. That's not how it is. Most men of productive age work normally, even if it's under the table. Basically, they simply do not know any other kind of work - it's just going to work for them. When those anti-Romani demonstrations are held with [non-Romani] people shouting "Get to work!", [Romani people] don't understand what that's about, because they work hard. We, as the state administration, must view this realistically.
Q: What does that mean?
A: We don't need to ask how to get people out of their bunks and into a job, how to prepare them to perform. What we must ask is: How can we make legal work more attractive than illegal work? How can we eliminate the risk of wage garnishing, which immediately significantly reduces a person's standard of living? There is a need to offer flexible work times, the option for flexible compensation, such as paying people every week. Illegal work functions that way - once a week I get CZK 1 000. I know I will get that much, no one takes anything out of it. Legal work, however, involves performing for a month and a half - and then, maybe, you get paid. That's the first problem. Already with that first or maybe the second salary, the creditors are collecting. That must be balanced out somehow through flexible compensation and employment schemes. We must make it possible for there to be gradual steps through which a person can pay off his debt and get into the free labor market.
Q: All of that is just putting out fires. Shouldn't we begin by making sure these people don't get into debt? Their creditors do have a claim to what is owed them, after all.
A: Awareness needs to be raised about how some people, young people in particular, get into debt in the first place. They are often indebted before they have any income of their own. For example, children grow up in families who fall behind on their waste collection bills - and the back payments are divided up among the children. When the children turn 18 years old, they are already in debt without having ever done anything to incur it.
Q: How is it possible that children can be put in debt for their parents' back waste collection bills?
A: The bills are calculated per household member. If the parents don't pay for their garbage can, then the children start their adult lives in debt. There are many such kinds of debt. Take those tumbledown buildings in Předlice, for example, where the water is leaking everywhere - that's all calculated per individual. Until recently it was the same at Chanov also. The amounts owed are incredibly high, without the alleged debtors having done anything to incur them. The person is immediately indebted [on turning 18]. It doesn't have anything to do with whether he wanted to buy a mobile phone, or a satellite dish. That's the general notion - that these people get into debt because they don't understand anything, and if we just teach them to manage their money it will be resolved. That's not how it is. Debts for back rent and utilities are a whole other chapter. Then there's all the quackery around the ways in which debt is collected. If someone doesn't buy a ticket to ride on mass transit and ends up CZK 10 000 in debt because of it, that isn't completely normal. The public administration must be capable of ensuring that something like that can't happen in the first place.
Q: When politicians talk about addressing high unemployment, most of them mention that they want to support mothers with children, or unemployed graduates, but no one ever talks about addressing unemployment in socially excluded localities, even though it is a much bigger problem there. Is the issue not attractive enough? Too touchy?
A: The tendency to choose pretty target groups will always exist. Mothers with children are favorites, as are people over 50 or young unemployed people - in short, groups about whom there is no doubt that they need support. When it comes to socially excluded people, they are all viewed in a simplistic way as basically Romani, and that makes it political death to advocate support for them. On the other hand, when you look at what kinds of projects are actually being supported by Labor Offices, at least where the Agency is working, a large proportion of them do target the socially excluded.
Q: So it's not discussed much, but the money does go where it is most needed?
A: Yes, in part. Very often, however, the support begins too generally, it's just for "the long-term unemployed", which is a group into which it is rather easy to fall - all that has to happen is that you can't find a nursery school for your child for a few months, you stay at home, and you are considered "long-term unemployed". When a target group is established in such broad terms, the most disadvantaged people naturally pay the price, because it's basically easy to provide support to a mother with a child who is also perfectly capable of finding work herself. There is a need to narrow down these groups, to specify them - then we will be able to say the money is going in the right direction.
Q: How many municipalities and regions is the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion working in now to help solve the problem of the socially excluded?
A: We are currently working in 26 micro-regions and municipalities. Every year about half of the municipalities change, 10 new municipalities begin and 10 leave the program. We work for three-year stretches at a time everywhere. We have three years to show that we can alter or establish a system so that it functions after we are gone. Success isn't that it works while the Agency is there, but that it functions after the Agency leaves.
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