Improving the labor market integration of Roma in Serbia and beyond

Source: UNDP

Roma minorities face a wide array of barriers to employment. Comprehensive approaches combining general social support with labor market services are therefore needed. Such comprehensive models can typically not be provided by Public Employment Services alone, which is why partnerships with non-public providers such as Civil Society Organizations are key. Given the limited number of quality non-public providers in Serbia and other countries, efforts must also be made to strengthen the ecosystem of service providers.

By Kevin Hempel | January 2023
The Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, as well as one of the most deprived and socially excluded groups. In the Western Balkans, Serbia is hosting the largest number of Roma, an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 people.

Fighting economic and social exclusion is a common policy objective across Europe and beyond. In Serbia, both the National Employment Strategy as well as Strategy for Social Inclusion of the Roma explicitly seek to increase access to viable and quality employment for the Roma people as one of their core objectives.

We worked with the GIZ project “Inclusion of Roma and other marginalised groups in Serbia” to guide the Serbian Government in developing an approach to improve the labor market integration of Roma in the country.

Understanding the target group

Finding the right mix of services first requires a good understanding of the target group and its barriers to employment. For Roma, the list of barriers is long.

First, Roma in Serbia have very low levels of completed formal education (80% primary school or less). Many also lack knowledge of the Serbian language, as well as some key socioemotional skills (e.g., self-confidence). Due to low literacy and other factors, such as lack of registration, many Roma also don’t have access to technical training opportunities. Taken together, this leads to a mismatch of the skills possessed by Roma and employer requirements. Many Roma also face health problems, affecting their ability to work.

The personal circumstances Roma live in also present challenges for labor market integration. High levels of poverty mean that Roma are often restricted in their mobility (e.g., due to cost of transportation) and access to communication devices (e.g., internet, computer). Living in segregated and isolated housing (e.g., in informal settlements) implies larger distance to job opportunities and other services, as well es more difficult access to information, including the lack of networks outside the Roma community.

Finally, many Roma are discouraged to seek work due to discrimination by employers as well as the design of social welfare regulations, that imply a loss of benefits when gaining income from (formal) work.

What kind of services are needed?

Given these barriers, what kind of interventions are needed? International experience suggests that in order to adequately meet the needs of the long-term unemployed and marginalized groups, including the Roma population, a comprehensive set of services is needed.

  1. Target outreach: Outreach typically requires going to “where the target group is” rather than waiting for them to come to you. Outreach must therefore often be done through (or in cooperation with) relevant stakeholders (e.g., CSOs, social services) who already serve the Roma population.
  2. Registration & profiling: By collecting education/employment history and other information about prospective beneficiaries, one can identify their distance to the labour market as a basis for client segmentation. While Roma face many shared challenges, they are not a homogeneous group, and some segmentation is needed to adapt services to different subgroups of Roma.
  3. Individual action plans: Holistic individual assessments are needed to understand people’s life circumstances, strengths/assets, and barriers to employment (e.g., health, skills/competences, family situation, etc.). The initial situation as well as all planned services are then documented in a forward-looking “individual action/development plan” (living document) that serves as a roadmap back to employment.
  4. Personalized and intensive counselling: Counselling and coaching often must combine several formats: (i) One-on-one: To build trust and address personal needs; (ii) Group-based: To build skills (e.g., self-confidence, time management) and foster connectedness with other participants; and (iii) involving the family, to understand social context (support, scepticism) and help build an enabling environment at home (e.g., ensure that family members support program participation).
  5. Other social support services: Finding a way to employment is difficult when other life circumstances are not conducive for employment. Hence, it is usually key to provide or make referrals to complementary services, such as support with administrative procedures (e.g., ID, bank account), healthcare, mental health counselling, debt-counselling, marriage counselling, housing support, migrant integration, other social support services, etc.
  6. Job search assistance & placement: When people are “ready”, one can introduce more traditional employment services, such as providing information on the labor market, supporting the preparation of application documents and interviews, etc.
  7. Activation measures: Given the larger distance from the labor market, a combination of several activation measures may sometimes be required (e.g., initial skills training followed by on-the-job training, wage-subsidy or start-up support). Moreover, measures must often be accompanied with supplementary support services (e.g., small stipend, transportation allowance, childcare) to facilitate attendance.
  8. Employer services: Without strong connections to employers, labour market integration remains elusive, especially for hard-to-employ groups like Roma and in contexts of discrimination. Hence, developing a network of partner companies that can support activation measures (e.g., internships, on-the-job training) and subsequent employment transitions for Roma is paramount.
  9. Post-placement support: This step is key. The transition period into training and education, work-based learning, or employment is very fragile. Hence, post-placement/onboarding support for at least 3 months is therefore essential to identify challenges early on and prevent drop-out.

Across Europe, there are several good examples on addressing some of these elements. For instance, in Hungary, to improve outreach and enrollment in available services, an officer of the Public Employment Service (PES) in the region Siklós travels to the region’s settlements every week. Equipped with a laptop with a connection to the PES IT system the officer can provide the regular services for the clients. In Bulgaria, to overcome the distrust in public services, the PES hired ethnic minority counsellors to work with discouraged and inactive Roma.

An important role for non-public providers to deliver these services

In addition to thinking about what services are needed to help hard-to-employ people like Roma access the labor market, another key question relates to “Who should provide these services?”. While Public Employment Services can take steps to enhance their service delivery to meet the needs of Roma (see examples above), the distrust in public institutions by Roma as well as the lack of adequate internal structures of the PES (e.g., large caseloads) make it usually very hard to provide a comprehensive set of services to Roma alone.

Instead, a more appropriate model is for Ministries of Labor and Public Employment Services to involve non-public providers of employment support services, such as Civil Society Organizations, in the service delivery. This partnership model has been adopted across the globe, including in countries with relatively strong Public Employment Services (like Germany). It usually involves (out-)contracting of services to non-public providers, either selected services or the entire “package”. The adequate distribution of responsibilities between PES and CSOs may vary according to local context (depending on the needs and capacity of the local PES).

In Serbia, several Roma-led and other CSOs, largely with the support from international development partners, have been able to build their internal capacity and demonstrate promising results in supporting the economic inclusion of Roma (e.g., Association of Roma Students Novi Sad, Association of Roma Students Niš, Bibija association of Roma women, Open Heart Belgrade, Divac Foundation). The Serbian government can therefore engage in partnerships with organizations like these to expand employment support services to Roma.

Building an ecosystem of service providers in Serbia

However, it is also clear that the current landscape of CSOs and other non-public providers with expertise in employment support services is limited and does not allow for serving Roma across the country. Therefore, it will be of strategic importance that Serbia works towards building a strong ecosystem of service providers who can facilitate the labor market integration of Roma.

What will it take to do that? Strengthening the ecosystem for CSOs to provide labor market integration services requires action at several levels:

  • A proper regulatory environment that recognizes that other organizations besides the National Employment Service can provide employment support services to jobseekers
  • Proper design of funding vehicles. Key elements include that funding is regular and predictable (e.g., annual tenders), so that non-public providers can provide continuous services in the communities where they work and don’t constantly lose staff due to funding interruptions. Contracts should also have sufficient durations (at least 24 months) and ensure that expenses for Monitoring & Evaluation, organizational costs, etc. are adequately accounted for.
  • Proper structures to administer the contracting out of services. Contracting out services to CSOs on a larger scale requires significant institutional capacity, e.g., to develop procurement documents, provide guidance to applicants, process progress reports and payments, knowledge management, etc. Rather than building up this capacity completely in-house, many governments engage external bodies (e.g., state bank, consultancy firm) to carry out these functions.
  • Capacity development efforts for CSOs. Working towards a more mature ecosystem of service providers requires strengthening their technical (e.g., labor market analysis, counselling pedagogy, employer services) and institutional capacities (e.g., financial management, M&E, HR). This can be done, for instance, through a Community of Practice of funding recipients who engage in peer-exchange as well as have access to expert-led trainings, study tours, etc. It can also involve a model where funding is given to “lead providers” who have a strong track record in delivering results, who then engage additional (smaller) providers to increase scale. The lead-provider is then responsible for strengthening capacity among its partners to ensure overall quality and results.
  • Developing quality standards. While formal quality standards or an accreditation system of CSOs is not a precondition for contracting out services to CSOs, it may be useful to develop certain standards for the non-public provision of labor market support services over time. However, while some standards can foster quality among providers, it is also important to not overregulate the market, as too much bureaucracy can frustrate providers and disincentivize them to engage. Hence, the best way to develop standards is hand-in-hand with existing funding instruments, so that the experiences from working with non-pubic providers can directly inform the quality standards to be set, while involving providers in the developing of the standards.

Enhancing the labor market integration of very vulnerable populations like Roma is a long-term endeavor. It is only possible with the recognition that substantial efforts and resources are needed to provide holistic employment support services. In many countries, there is still limited institutional capacity, both in the public sector and among non-public providers like NGOs, to offer these types of services at scale. Therefore, in addition to financing services to final beneficiaries, it is equally important to invest in building a strong ecosystem of service providers that can offer quality services for those who need them most.

About the author:

Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programs to facilitate the labor market integration of disadvantaged groups. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.