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Interview with Slovak sociologist about Romani unemployment

Bratislava, 13.8.2011 19:11, (ROMEA)
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This fall, the long-term unemployed in Slovakia may lose half of their family allowance benefits. The change is being proposed by Ludovít Kanik and other MPs from the SDKÚ-DS party (Slovak Democratic and Christian Union - Democratic Party). The Slovak Parliament will decide whether to pass their amendment in the fall. The MPs are defending the move by arguing that the "breeding" of children should not be a money-making activity. However, many critics object that the new legislation would primarily discriminate against the Romani people whom it would most affect. Sociologist Zuzana Kusá (54) of the Slovak Academy of Sciences claims Slovakia's problem lies in a lack of jobs, not in high welfare benefits. The following interview with her was first published by Slovak news server

Q: Why are you objecting to reductions in the family allowance benefits for the long-term unemployed?

A: I am basing my objection on international studies which show that when household income is too low, it paralyzes people, depriving them of the capacity to lead a normal life. It is absurd to presume such a step would motivate people to work. Exactly the opposite will happen - they will fall into even greater lethargy. The Slovak reformers refuse to recognize this. Welfare benefits in Slovakia today are so low that those receiving them are unable to live decently no matter what they do. A further reduction to their support will just intensify their misery and completely deprive them of the ability to take advantage of any opportunities life might present them.

Q: Ludvík Kaníka claims these people will do anything to work once their benefits are lower. Is that not the case?

A: That is simply a mistaken vision without any basis in actual experience. Kaníka proposed this already in 2004, when his radical reductions in the per-child benefit for households in material distress prompted a mass uprising among Romani people. Did you see all of the long-term unemployed start working then? Probably not, because there were no jobs to be had. The problem is the lack of jobs. You can take away all of their benefits, but if there are no jobs to be had, the result will be zero - or downright tragic.

Q: Is it possible that reducing welfare would strengthen the mobility of the labor force and motivate them to seek work in large cities or abroad?

A: It doesn't work that way. You can only leave your home to work if you have some money. Even if a long-term unemployed person finds work, let's say, in Bratislava, where will he or she live? The majority of these people are unqualified, they will only make the minimum wage, and with that kind of income they can't afford even a residential hotel, to say nothing of the other costs of living. If someone wants to commute to a larger town in the region for work, he or she needs money for transportation, which is not cheap. Moreover, there is a lack of day care and nursery schools, so for mothers it is almost impossible to commute 70 or 80 kilometers to a job, which is customary in the east.

Q: There are, however, factories facing labor shortages, like in Trnava.

A: Here we are discussing eastern Slovakia in particular. I believe that even in Trnava you wouldn't find rents for a family below EUR 200 a month, and municipal social housing is only for local residents.

Q: If they can't commute, they they could get involved in starter jobs ...

A: When that system started, almost 200 000 people passed through starter jobs in the course of a year - but then investments were reduced and it became a problem. Starter jobs are not a permanent solution, they are only supposed to serve as a temporary halfway step, to renew work habits, and when people finish they should move into a normal work life - but there are no jobs for these people to move into, so the entire system is having no effect.

Q: Is that why mayors are complaining they can't provide starter jobs for everyone?

A: Exactly. In 2008 an amendment was adopted restricting access to starter jobs - each person can only try the program once. The long-term unemployed thus lost an opportunity to increase their incomes, and it was at that time that petty crime committed by Romani people began to increase.

Q: So starter jobs are an artificial solution?

A: Under the current design of the system, where the material distress benefit is partially tied to a starter job, it is the only way for the long-term unemployed to increase their incomes. It is very important that starter jobs be organized by state enterprises also, such as Lesy SR (the Slovak Forest Service) and the agencies managing the rivers, the watershed, because that would expand the circle of options available to the unemployed. The state should be more active as is customary in Western Europe. In Rotterdam, for example, they employ bus ticket sellers. Even though it is cheaper to set up machines dispensing tickets, it takes someone's job away to do that.

Q: Kaník is proposing that at least one parent work a minimum of 270 days during the course of four years in order to receive their family allowance benefit in full. Are there regions where this requirement really could not be met?

A: In the research we conducted in one "valley of starvation", I met many 15-year-old children whose parents had never worked - or if they had, it had been in the Czech Republic. Romani people are not the only ones in such straits. In south central and eastern Slovakia you have districts where unemployment is 30 %, you'll find villages there with practically no men or young people, because everyone has gone abroad for work. However, you can't expect everyone to do that. It would be a super-human task for a person with low qualifications or for someone with no income or the necessary contacts.

Q: Do you believe there are many people living in Slovakia who simply wouldn't work even if they had the opportunity?

A: You obviously can find extremely poor, isolated communities where no one has the strength to leave and where the majority of people have no other choice. It is "known" that these people don't work, that they live off of crime and welfare. However, not all of the long-term unemployed in Slovakia function that way. Most Romani people also do not behave that way, and it is a great error, a prejudice, to assume they do. Believe me, most Romani people think about life the same way we do. They would like to work and lead dignified lives, but what prevents them from doing so in the regions where they live is their low levels of education and their skin color. The Slovak economy does not offer employment options for low-qualified people. Only 4 % of those employed are people with only a primary-school education. More than half of those employed have college educations or high school diplomas.

Q: That is the natural course of development for an economy in an information society.

A: Why, then, are Romani people managing to find work in Great Britain? Why are there jobs there even for people without high qualifications - and none in this country? Part of the explanation is Slovaks' low incomes overall. Logically there is not such a great demand for the services provided by less educated people. Slovaks don't go out to eat in restaurants as much, they repair their own cars and electrical appliances, they build their own homes, they don't travel much ... so there are not as many jobs for chambermaids, dish-washers, janitors, manual laborers, or security guards.

Q: Isn't it also because many people don't want to work because they would make less working than they can get on welfare?

A: That is the problem of the minimum wage, which is too low. Try to live on EUR 317 gross per month, which after deductions is about EUR 285! That is very hard to do. Even the poor benefits paid to larger families look good compared to that - but they only seem good, because in this country the system functions such that people whose incomes are below the poverty line, and whose households qualify for welfare, can only receive benefits equivalent to their employment income. However, since one-fourth of their employment income is not included in those calculations, it is impossible for someone to have a higher income through welfare than through working.

Q: So they would make just a little more and it doesn't motivate them to work.

A: People go to work because it is part of normal life. I know many Romani people for whom it is a question of being respected by society and a question of self-respect. There are definitely many people who have given up, who do not believe they will find work, but hardly anyone freely decides that he or she would prefer to sit at home and draw welfare. I have worked with many Romani people who were proud to be employed, it mattered greatly to them that other people perceived them as different from the Roma "from the settlements".

Q: Most of society believes Romani people spend their welfare on alcohol and don't want to work. Why?

A: Most of those people have never lived among Romani people, they don't know them, and they base their opinions only on the sensationalist cases selected for them by the media. Take the example of homeless people - you form an opinion of them if all you see is that they are sitting on benches drinking wine. However, what you don't see is that many of them spent the entire rest of the day collecting old paper and scrap metal and pushing their hand-carts to recycling centers to make money. They work at very demanding jobs. The same applies to Romani people in the settlements. They live without electricity or running water, and despite this you will always see freshly-washed laundry hanging outside their shanties. They have to cook somehow, which is hard work in their catastrophic conditions. When a municipality, or the state, builds social housing for them, that immediately launches a hateful discussion of why we are giving them something.

Q: People wouldn't be outraged if the Roma didn't destroy the apartments so often.

A: Marek Hojsík and the Terezín Initiative Institute recently followed the state of social housing units built as part of a program to erect constructions that meet the lowest possible standard. They found that only 2 -3 % of all the apartments had been damaged or destroyed. Often these were dwellings made out of cheap, inappropriate materials. Here a few negative examples are being misused in order to ignore these people's right to housing, to completely refuse to help them. In Great Britain, for example, it is normal that families with children in material distress are able to live for free in municipal apartments.

Q: So all those reports of destroyed buildings and torn-up parquet floors are just exceptional extremes?

A: Please, when is the last time housing units in Slovakia were outfitted with parquet floors? That is an urban myth about Romani people building fires in their living rooms, I don't know where it came from but it started from an isolated case and is now spoken of as a standard practice. Romani people do not live in new buildings with parquet floors. They are in apartments in old tower blocks or lower-standard apartments that don't even have linoleum! If we want to be objective, let's compare the expenditure on social affairs generally, in this country, with the expenditure in the rest of Europe. Our share is 16 % of GDP, while in the other EU countries the average is more than 26 %. Of that total package, aid to those in material distress comprises not quite 3 %. That really does not seem like overkill to me or like something we need to cut even further.

Q: What do you say to the argument that if someone does not contribute to the system, in the form of work and tax deductions, that he or she should take as little from that system as possible?

A: I understand that people like Ludvík Kaníka perceive everything in terms of "earning". Evidently in their view if someone is born with a disability, they should just go hang themselves, since they will never be capable of "contributing" to the system, just "taking" from it.

Q: He obviously wouldn't say that - we're talking about healthy people who can work.

A: Then that argument only makes sense in an ideal society where it never rains, everyone loves one another, and there is enough work to be had. However, in Slovakia, in May, there were roughly 340 000 unemployed people ready to go to work at the drop of a hat, and only 9 000 jobs available. Moreover, those jobs were located in places where unemployment is already low. Some welfare benefits, in short, should be universal, not "earned". In Slovakia the children of low-income families receive free lunch at school. In Sweden, all children have that option regardless of their parents' income. That's how you get rid of rich people's feelings of aggravation when the poor receive something they don't.

Q: The fact is that many Romani people make their living by having children. How should the state proceed if it wants to prevent that?

A: We can turn that question around: How is the state to proceed so that having children is not the only way for some people to make a living? It is often the case that a mother will have a second child so she can provide more food for her first.

Q: There is a great deal of debate over whether the proposed amendment targets Romani people in a discriminatory way. Does it?

A: In our official standpoint on this legislation we did not use that term, and we did not refer to any particular ethnicity. In my personal opinion, this law discriminates against all unemployed people in regions where there is no work, as well as against all people who are unable to find a job because of their low level of education or the state of their health.

The entire interview (in Slovak only) is available at

František Kostlán, Gwendolyn Albert, fk, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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