Roma Employment Drive Falls Short as $14 Billion Untapped

Bodvalenke, a hamlet in Hungary’s northeast, was supposed to be a symbol of possibilities for the Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority.

When Roma artists began painting colorful murals on village houses four years ago, attracting media attention, offers of aid and support for the impoverished community poured in from companies and volunteers. Tourists also began arriving to view the artworks.

Today, as the mural project draws to a close, the aid offers have produced only 11 jobs for the village’s 82 working-age adults, at a local biofuels project. It only started up this month. Nor do the tourists stay long, because the town has no hotels or restaurants.

“We live off government aid,” said villager Jozsefne Rusznyak, 50, the mother of 13 children, 10 of whom are living, none of whom hold jobs. Some have moved out of Bodvalenke. The family weaves baskets to make some extra money, she said.

Countries in central Europe and the Balkans would gain as much as an aggregate 10 billion euros ($14 billion) annually if Roma had equal access to jobs, according to a 2010 World Bank report. Yet large-scale efforts to help Roma are failing, eight years into a decade-long push by European governments to address the issue, according to Marton Rovid of the Decade of Roma Inclusion secretariat in Budapest.

Roma Project

“It’s a positive that the problem has been recognized but there’s consensus that there’s been no breakthrough that narrowed the gap between the Roma and non-Roma,” Rovid said by phone.

He helps coordinate a campaign started in 2005 by 12 mostly eastern European governments to lift the Roma, who number an estimated 11 million in Europe, out of poverty. Also known as Gypsies, Roma originally came from India and now live in every European Union country except Malta, according to Council of Europe data.

Annual monitoring reports by civil-society organizations on government efforts to tackle Roma unemployment show a list of disappointments, including lack of progress in ending discrimination in education, health and housing.

The issue caught public attention recently in France when police took custody of a 15-year-old Roma girl while on a school trip and deported her, with her family, to Kosovo. Thousands of students demonstrated in protest. President Francois Hollande sought to quell public criticism by inviting her to return -- without her family. She declined.

Which Parents?

In Greece, authorities took a blond, fair-skinned girl away from her Roma parents this month after a police raid on their encampment. When DNA tests showed she wasn’t their child, an international appeal produced a Roma woman in Bulgaria who said she had given birth to the girl, known as Maria, in Greece. She said she had left the baby there when returning home because she couldn’t afford to care for her, according to press reports.

Discrimination is widespread enough that in the Czech Republic, with a Roma population estimated by the Council of Europe at 200,000, only 5,199 acknowledged in the 2011 census that they considered themselves to be Roma, according to the Czech government’s progress report on inclusion last year. In 2012, 11.4 percent of Roma job applicants found employment, down from 17 percent in 2011, the report said, using calculations from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

In Romania, with an estimated 1.85 million Roma, the largest population in the EU, the jobless rate for the ethnicity was 48.6 percent in 2011. It was 7.4 percent for non-Roma, according to groups including the Soros Foundation’s Romania Civil Society Development Foundation.

‘Minimal Effect’

“The inclusion projects have a minimal effect,” Madalin Voicu, a Roma lawmaker in Bucharest, said by phone. They are set back, he said, by the incentive to stay on social aid because wages are so low and the unwillingness of some Roma leaders to engage in the project. “We are talking about changes that take 10 or 20 years.”

In Bodvalenke, the 33rd house mural, the last one planned, is being finished. The paintings include depictions of local ballads and daily life as well as the persecutions Roma face. All are in vivid colors that contrast with the grim lives of those in the village, where most houses lack running water.

“We wanted to draw attention to the discrimination and to the abject poverty,” said Eszter Pasztor, a non-Roma volunteer who organized the Fresco Village project. Villagers live on less than $2 a day in government aid, half what they used to get, according to her calculations based on a door-to-door survey.

Bodvalenke is typical, said Janos Ladanyi, a sociologist at Corvinus University in Budapest who specializes in Roma issues. The closing of unprofitable factories after the fall of Communism threw more than 1 million people, many of them Roma, out of employment, he said by phone.

No Clock

“Generations have grown up in ghetto villages where there’s not a single person who wakes up to the sound of an alarm clock telling them it’s time to go to work,” Ladanyi said.

Hungary and Slovakia have adopted a get-tough approach on Roma, sending the unemployed into public-works programs for less than the minimum wage. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has tied welfare checks to participation in the programs, calls it a transition from “welfare to workfare.”

The gross domestic product of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania and Serbia would rise an average 3 percent and government revenue by more than 4 percent if “Roma enjoyed the same labor market opportunities as the majority populations,” the World Bank report said. The Roma populations in the four countries represent more than two-thirds of Roma living in central Europe and the Balkans.

Few Tourists

Private efforts show some success, though in small numbers. A 45-minute drive northeast of Bodvalenke, U.S. Steel Corp.’s plant in Kosice, Slovakia, has joined a program called Equal Chances that offers temporary, low-skilled jobs to ethnic Roma. So far, 111 people have been employed at the plant, with 17 gaining full-time status, spokesman Jan Baca said.

In Bodvalenke, the murals haven’t attracted investment in tourism that would encourage visitors to stay and create long-term jobs, Pasztor said. She estimates an investment of 150 million forint ($709,000), mostly for building a guest house and a restaurant, would employ everyone.

The town’s mayor doesn’t agree.

“This is silly,” said Janos Toth, 33, one of the few non-Roma in the village. “It’s a mirage, not a solution.” The mayor spoke from a dingy shack as he distilled palinka, the local firewater, made of fruits such as pears and plums. He said it would take the reopening of a local coal mine to provide jobs needed by Bodvalenke and other villages in the region.

Pasztor, 60, said progress is being made. Volunteer tutors have improved the educational performance of children, who make up about half the village population. The village’s annual Dragon Festival has become a tourist draw. And the town is hoping to win EU grants for the restaurant and guest-house construction. In the process, a sense of community has been established among Roma villagers, Pasztor said.

“If we can find a solution in one town, we can find a solution everywhere,” Pasztor said. “At least we’re on the map now.”

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