The Roma national minority, the Republic of Serbia’s most vulnerable ethnic group, continues to face challenges in exercising basic human rights, including the constitutionally guaranteed right to work. Despite significant efforts in recent years, their situation remains marked by extreme poverty, high unemployment, low levels of education, difficult access to the labour market and poor housing conditions.
As a result, Roma are one of the most marginalized groups in the labour market. Reflecting a broader backdrop of social discrimination and stigma, their work is typically among the least valued in society. The majority of these jobs, such as collecting secondary raw materials, seasonal manual labour or daily wage labour, are not formally recognized and do not require any qualifications.
Work and employment are important for the Roma population for two reasons. First, of course, having a job increases economic independence and personal living standards. Second, however, employment can support social inclusion and participation, challenging engrained stereotypes about the community. Alongside limited educational attainment, discrimination is one of the most significant barriers to Roma women and men in the labour market. A general intolerance of diversity has encouraged popular prejudices against Roma to develop, aided by the fact that many have no personal contact with Roma and lack any knowledge of their history, culture and traditions.
As of 2017, employment rates among Roma women in Serbia were just 9 per cent.
In light of both gender inequalities in the labour market and the gendered role of women within the community, the situation of Roma women is even more unfavourable as they often face multiple discrimination. As of 2017, employment rates among Roma women were just 9 per cent. One Roma woman, who lives in a city in central Serbia and has been working as a cleaner in a health facility for almost a decade, illustrates how discrimination has permeated every aspect of her work. Despite working there for nine years, she has remained on a temporary contract even as new arrivals have been given permanent employment. Despite her hard work and commitment to her job, she is paid only a fraction of what her colleagues receive and is still denied the same benefits, such as paid holiday and sick leave. When she recently fell and broke her arm, she was forced to wear a cast for three weeks: the very day it was removed, she was called back in to work, and yet at the end of the month more than half of her salary was deducted from her pay cheque. She regards her ill treatment as a clear indication of discrimination: ‘It is obvious why this is the case – I’m the only Roma woman there. One hundred per cent, there is no other explanation. And I have to work like this because my husband is ill, and my son has a family of two children who live with us. With this contract I won’t even have years of service calculated to be able to retire and have a pension.’
The stigmatization of Roma is also evident in other sectors. For instance, there are employers in the food and baking industry who reportedly prefer not to hire Roma because they are concerned that their poverty and lack of access to water in their homes will mean workers are not be able to meet the necessary standards of hygiene – a common stereotype that many Roma have to contend with. Discrimination can also be experienced from consumers as well as employers. ‘When selling goods on the market,’ according to one respondent, ‘buyers have repeatedly hesitated to buy my goods because I am a Roma woman.’
Almost 30,000 Roma people were listed on the National Employment Service’s (NES) database in 2020. According to the Praxis study mentioned earlier, the reason for their registration is primarily to access their unemployment-related rights, such as welfare support, child allowance and health care, rather than to actively seek out jobs. This is not surprising, given that almost none of the Roma surveyed were able to find employment through the NES. Besides widespread mistrust of official institutions, they have little faith that their situation will improve if they participate in NES programmes. This is an area, therefore, that requires substantive engagement with the Roma community to resolve their needs.
Furthermore, it is necessary to act in an integrated and comprehensive manner to address the root causes of inequality in employment, beginning with education. Reducing early dropout from school, preventing early marriages, and providing adequate housing and personal identity documentation – these are all preconditions for exercising a variety of rights and strengthening employability. Given that the absence of Roma men and women from the labour market is estimated to cost the Serbian economy €413 million per year, according to a study conducted by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), a genuinely inclusive work environment would benefit everyone. This change, however, can only be realized if employers challenge their own prejudices. At present the odds are still stacked against Roma; as one respondent describes: ‘If one company is looking for a worker and two Roma and one non-Roma candidate have applied, they will accept the non-Roma worker.’
Photo: Roma men collecting scrap materials to sell to recycling companies, a vital source of income for Roma communities and filling gaps in community waste management. Nis, Serbia. Credit: Dragan Kujundzic