TWENTY ROMA women from the eastern Slovak village of Ladomirová will soon start work in a textile shop set up by a local factory as part of an employment project called Roma to Roma.
The project will feature local Roma women sewing small articles for sale in local shops. Its aim is both to put more Roma to work, and to turn local Roma into customers for Roma-produced goods. It will open May 1.
Slovakia's estimated 400,000 to 500,000-strong Roma minority has been generally poorer, less educated and more vulnerable to disease than the majority population since the fall of communism in 1989.
Despite cabinet statements acknowledging their dire situation, the Roma also face far higher unemployment than the national average of over 20.7 per cent. Roma say that Slovakia's enduring jobless problem is made worse for them by discrimination, with employers either not willing to hire Roma, or singling them out as the first to be laid off.
Worries that generations of Roma could lose the habit of regular work - as well as stark economic facts - motivated Ladislav Koudelka, head of Ladomirová's Svik textile factory, to start the workshop with female Roma employees.
"Almost all Roma are unemployed. A generation of Roma is growing up which isn't even familiar with the term employment," said Koudelka.
Koudelka said that while he already employed 100 local Roma women out of a total 620 factory staff, the new workshop aimed at putting Roma workers and consumers into touch, to reinforce the relationships intrinsic to market economies.
He said the women would be paid a normal wage, while the factory itself hoped to profit from sales generated by word-of-mouth among local Roma.
"I'm also doing this for sound economic reasons. Better-educated people will not work in my factory, and instead leave for better jobs, so employing Roma is a also matter of staying afloat for the factory," he said.
The average wage in the textile factory is Sk8,000 to Sk9,000 ($160 to $180) a month, added Koudelka, while the national average wage in 2001 was just over Sk13,000 a month.
Employment schemes like that in Ladomirová have been welcomed as a small step forward in the long process of integrating the community into economic and social Slovak life.
Official unemployment statistics on the Roma do not exist, but according to Michal Vašečka, a Roma issues analyst with the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Bratislava, in some areas of the country, particularly in the economically depressed east, Roma face 90 to 100 per cent unemployment.
Iveta Radičová, a sociologist and head of the Bratislava-based Social Policy Analysis Centre (Space), called the Roma employment situation "simply catastrophic".
Countrywide events organised in Slovakia on international Roma day on April 9 echoed calls for Roma employment and elimination of what Roma feel is discrimination against them by the majority.
One Roma, a father of three from the western Slovak town of Holič, told The Slovak Spectator that he had once applied for an advertised night watchman job with a local company, and had been told via telephone that the position was vacant and to come in for a job interview.
"When I arrived there later that same day, they saw I was Roma, and suddenly told me the job was already taken. That's happened not only to me but to many other Roma I know," he said.
Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities Pál Csáky shared the concerns over the Roma population, but remarked that lifting the community to better living standards, education and employment levels were part of a long-term process.
"It's a long-distance race," he said.
Since 1991, various Slovak cabinets have approved five 'concept' documents for dealing with 'the Roma problem'; the Dzurinda government is now working to establish an Equal Opportunity Centre.
Despite the efforts of Slovakia's governments, Vašečka said, Slovakia's Roma community remains one of the worst-off in the eastern European bloc.
The European Parliament, while praising the cabinet for its efforts to help the Roma community, said in its September 5, 2001 resolution that "Slovakia must work to narrow the gap between good intentions and their practical realisation".
An 80-page World Bank Report entitled Poverty and Welfare of the Roma in the Slovak Republic, prepared in co-operation with Space and the Open Society Foundation and examining social exclusion, poverty, and unemployment among Slovak Roma, is now being discussed with mayors, NGOs and students in towns around the country.
While such meetings are needed to increase awareness of the Roma's problems, Vašečka said, hands-on projects like that in Ladomirová were "essential" to help the Roma regain confidence in themselves and feel part of Slovak society.
"These are small but very important projects. Only a few jobs may be created, but for those who get them they are extremely important because through them Roma regain their work habits, and a feeling of being useful and accepted by society," Vašečka said.