Roma communities find employment through cooperatives

14 Feb 2014

imagePHOTO: ACT/UNDP

UNDP is working in Međimurje County to help unemployed Roma set up their own businesses

"I'm 35 years old and I have never worked. I would really like to work but I have never succeeded in finding a job. I hope that now I will have the opportunity to work in our future cooperative "Romona" through which we will show that Roma women can start initiatives.“
So says Vesna, one of the four Roma women involved a project organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the non-governmental organization CEDRA Čakovec. Launched at the beginning of 2013, the project is designed to help Roma create their own businesses, including through the formation of two cooperatives in the Roma settlements of Kuršanec and Sitnice. The activity is part of a larger UNDP project funded by the Open Society Foundations to promote Roma inclusion in Međimurje County.

Roma in Croatia have both a lower employment rate and a higher unemployment rate than the general population, according to data collected for a new UN report on the status of Roma in Croatia that is set for publication in 2014. Among young Roma women, 82% are unemployed, compared to just 24% of non-Roma women of the same age. Roma in rural areas are at a particular disadvantage on the labor market: while 46% of Roma from urban areas have jobs, only 30% in rural areas are employed.

The reasons for this disparity are complex, but both lower educational attainments among Roma and discrimination against Roma by the majority population play a role. In an effort to help Roma break the employment barrier, UNDP is exploring innovation models of self-employment. According to a report from CEDRA Čakovec that was commissioned by UNDP in June 2013, "Social cooperatives are a very appropriate and suitable model for today's difficult market and economic conditions in Croatia." 

Cooperatives first emerged in 19th-century England as a response by peasants, craftsmen, and workers to a decline in socio-economic status that followed the collapse of feudalism and the rise of banking, trade and industry. The world”s first cooperative was founded in 1844 as a cooperative of consumers, and was soon followed by the establishment of many agricultural and craft cooperatives. Croatia’s first cooperative, "Pitomačka zanatnička zadružnica," was founded in 1862 to match those seeking safe investments with small new businesses seeking funds. Cooperatives played a major role in the 20th century, but are currently shunned in Croatia as an unwanted legacy of Yugoslav socialism. 

Despite a global low level of formal education, a majority of Roma developed some specific professional skills through informal forms of education which are still not formally recognised in Croatian system for validation of learning outcomes. For this reason, self-employment in a form of a cooperative is one of the ways for UNDP to support Roma towards economic independence particularly given the unfavourable conditions that currently prevail on the Croatian labour market.

The first cooperative established under the project, in the Roma settlements of Kuršanec and Sitnice, is organized around organic and biodynamic farming. So far, some 30 long-term unemployed Roma from Međimurje County have received training that they will apply in the collection and cultivation of medicinal plants and the production of vegetables and fruits following exclusively biodynamic principles. Due to the complexity of the process, the cooperative will include other ecological producers and experts from the local community, and it will be mentored by the Autonomous centre - ACT. The second cooperative brings together unemployed Roma women aged 17-35 from the Kuršanec settlement who face particularly daunting socio-economic challenges. They will receive general training in work skills and professional training in screen-printing with ecological colours.

The two cooperatives are off to a good start. The theoretical part of the training cycle, which teaches the various activities of cooperatives, how cooperative businesses are conducted and important social skills for employment, has been completed. The cooperatives launch production in March 2014, and six Roma will secure formal employment with the support of schemes for self-employment of the unemployed that are offered by Croatian public employment office (Čakovec).

UNDP and CEDRA Čakovec will continue to work together to mentor the cooperatives and will especially encourage them to be become sustainable over the long term. In addition, these organizations will also provide them with support in looking for additional investment. The two initiatives will be watched closely for their potential to serve as a model for helping marginalized groups create their own businesses and thus secure decent livelihoods for their families.