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Labours of love

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A goat path leading from the Zoo bus stop to the Botanical Garden in Prague’s Trója goes around a house with a sign advertising gardening services. Anyone passing by in the morning may see a group of people with gardening tools digging around the hilly place. Few would notice that these gardeners have psychiatric problems.

Alice Frelichová, 31, developed schizophrenia eight years ago when she was working as a shop assistant. Since 2004 she has been receiving full disability pension. Between 2005 and 2006, Alice worked as a cleaning lady at a bar before she came to Zahrada three months ago. “I like working here. The people here are nice and the pay is better than when I worked at a bar,” says Frelichová. Her colleague Milan Kmoch, 34, a patient with paranoid schizophrenia, came to Zahrada nine months ago. “I like almost anything we do here. It’s a great experience and one learns a lot about gardening,” says Milan who previously worked as a garbage collector and a car mechanic in Dejvice. He now wants to continue working as a gardener.

Zahrada’s main goal is to provide jobs for people with mental illnesses and help them lead normal lives. Up until May 2006 Zahrada was registered as a protected workshop within Fokus, a nonprofit association for mental healthcare, which organised a conference on social firms two years ago and is preparing another for September. But Fokus wanted to gain bigger financial independency and decided to transform Zahrada into a social enterprise three years ago. The social firm provides gardening services from regular or one-off garden maintenance to general garden cleanup, planting of flowers and shrubs. “The only difference from a regular company is that we employ people with mental illness,” says Zuzana Strnadová who works for Zahrada as a gardener.

Too Much Paperwork
The concept of social enterprise, which serves disadvantaged people and which is quite common in western European countries such as Great Britain, Italy and Austria, is being adopted in the Czech Republic only with difficulties. The first social firm registered in the Czech Republic was Jůnův statek. For ten years now, the restaurant and guesthouse in Sedlec near Prague employs people with mental illnesses.

According to socialnifirmy.cz, a portal that provides information on social business, there are currently three social firms registered in the Czech Republic. The social firm model was created as part of the Development of Social Firm project in the period between 2005 and 2007. The project was organised and implemented by Fokus Praha and the civic association SANANIM for drug addiction treatment. The project drew inspiration from partner organisations in Britain (Social Firms UK) and Italy (EnAIP organisation).

“There are very few social firms here because it requires too much paperwork. State institutions make it harder for us instead of supporting a good thing. Imagine, each of our clients must collect a number of permissions from various places to get this job. These people find it difficult just to take public transportation and go out in the streets. Now imagine they must go from office to office,” says Petra Jiráňová, one of the managers at Zahrada. Zahrada currently employs ten people part-time and is preparing to hire one more. The capacity is twelve. “We can’t take anyone who applies. We sometimes leave for work before the rush-hour in the morning which is something our clients may not handle. They take medications and too much work makes them tired,” explains Jiráňová. “But if they are financially motivated and treated with respect, the boys are able to work all day long without any problems.” Work at the nearby Botanical garden, with which Zahrada has an agreement, is especially popular among the clients. “Working at botanická is usually less demanding than working for other clients.”

The ability of the clients to adjust to a workload played role during the transformation process into a social firm. Some clients could not be hired because their health was too poor. That’s why a selection process took place with supervision of a social expert. Now the company receives enough orders besides in the winter when the work is restricted to making ad stickers, which is something especially men get tired of doing after a while.

Bureaucracy is not the only problem behind establishing a social firm in this country. A lack of finances, insufficient state support and missing legislative framework are among those often mentioned by people involved in the business. “Ever since we established our café in 2005 the conditions haven’t changed much. A grant for this year has been provided through the European Social Fund but this doesn’t include Prague,” says Marcel Ambrož, a social therapist from the civic association Sananim dealing with people with drug addiction.

Sananim’s Café Therapy is another social firm operating in the Czech Republic. The café situated in the centre of Prague in Školská street employs the clients of Doléčovací centrum, Sananim’s therapy centre, who have been treated with drug addiction. Café Therapy provides them with the qualification they need to later be able to compete in the labour market in gastronomy sector. Since its opening in 2005, the café has employed 38 clients and more than 80% of them live normal lives now, according to Ambrož.

But the economic situation is not as good. “We are in the red even though the loss is not as deep,” Ambrož says. “But we are not making any profit these days. Making our business transparent is the main reason behind it.” Many in the gastronomy business earn wages as
low as CZK 10,000, which means the employer pays less to the state. Sananim, on the other hand, pays a standardised wage depending on clients’ education and experience. What also contributes to the loss is the fact that the company, as any other social enterprise, employs a higher number of staff than necessary, as Sananim clients have no experience with gastronomy services.

Finding the Right Balance
Another social firm may open in the Czech Republic soon. The Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation organised workshop in Prague several weeks ago with an aim to establish a social bike business. The workshop was attended by Sue Knaup, an executive director of One Street non-profit international organisation working to increase bicycling mainly through establishing social bike businesses.

After talking to a number of local bicycling promoters, Sue Knaup expressed high hopes with the project. “I have been astonished how pervasive the understanding is. Sometimes I don’t even finish my introductory sentence naming the Social Bike business programme before someone excitedly interrupts offering comparisons to other, legitimate social businesses. People absolutely get it, no matter what part of the world they are in,” she says.

The Partnership Foundation together with people from an environment project AutoMat are currently looking for a suitable place and a business concept to establish the centre that would provide locally manufactured affordable transportation bicycles and cycling guidance to disadvantaged people, job training for bicycle repair, customer service, management and bike shop ownership. It would be owned and operated by disadvantaged people and all profits would increase service to disadvantaged people. “I feel that One Street’s international Social Bike Business programme has caught a rising wave and we are in the perfect time to bring our bicycle expertise to this social business movement,” Knaup says.

Despite all the obstacles to the social business movement, the number of enthusiasts is slowly growing. A new social firm is opening in July established by the non-civic organisation Rozmarýna which helps children from crèche through various social programmes. Children from these programmes will work at the new Café Rozmar in Prague’s 2 Trojická street between Palacký square and Výtoň.

The people from Rozmarýna have already selected the first employees who will work at the café as chef assistants and waitresses. Since the main goal is to give them job experience, have them get used to regular working hours and increase their motivation and sense of responsibility, they will be getting only a temporary half-year contracts. Once they leave, they will see if they can use their experience. “We’d like them to realise that working as a cook is not a low-class job,” says the social firm manager Zuzana Hippmannová.

Simona Bagarová who is a PR manager and fundraiser at Rozmarýna says it took three years to find money and a good place for the project. “When starting four years ago, we had difficulties finding information that would help us set up the business. People here don’t know what a social firm was. We were lucky to get help from Café Therapy,” she says. “No one has found yet the right balance between making profit and supporting the disadvantaged.”

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