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Unemployed helping make ghetto more liveable

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Riegrova street in Ostrava-Hrušov started looking much better lately. Once omnipresent piles of rubbish disappeared. Cellars and attics have been cleaned. Dark and dirty corridors of some of the devastated buildings are newly painted. There are fewer children in the streets than before.

It has all been done by the long-term unemployed. Since March, they have been cleaning and painting in the street that is listed among the socially excluded areas. Other people doing voluntary work are playing with the kids in a leisure activity centre. They were forced to do so by the new law on material poverty.

Josef Kováč has been doing public service in Riegrova street since Monday. Unless he works for 20 hours a month his material poverty bonus would be cut by more than CZK 1,000. He does not want that.

He does not have an apprenticeship. He worked as a builder for most of his life and has been unemployed lately. He has five children and a flat in Riegrova street so he does not have to walk far to work. “I was looking for a job but in vain. It always looked promising on the phone but when they saw a gipsy they lost interest,” said Kováč.

It would be better with salary…
He is repairing a devastated municipal flat with another unemployed. First, they scraped the walls, now they are plastering and they will paint after.

“This is our third day here. I don’t mind work, it’s better than sitting at home. There is a chance I would get some public work. So I try. If I got it I would get paid and that would be better,” he said.

His colleague, Milan Červeňák, is working with a spatula. He trained for a builder but did not finish. He has three kids. He used to work in the Odra mine for nine years until the attenuation. The last job he had was cutting grass and planting trees. “I looked for work but could not find any,” he said.

The largest room of the flat that has already been fixed serves as a leisure activities room for children.

Social bonuses can be saved by baby-sitting
Two young women are playing with some 10 children of various ages. One is playing a board game with the kids. She is only twenty, she has never worked before and did not finish school. She got the seasonal job with the kids through an Ostrava NGO S.T.O.P that focuses on seasonal jobs providing.

“I had a lower social bonus in July already. It took me a long time to find where I could work for those 20 hours,” she said. Her 34-year-old colleague Nikola is a cook. She lives alone with her daughter and she hasn’t been working since her maternity leave. “I cannot work shifts and that is a problem,” she said.

Two social workers who have a small office in one of the houses are watching over the unpaid workers in Riegrova street. “There is a number of work groups taking turns here. We assign what they should do, distribute tools and check. The people are usually trying. They have already done a lot,” Jitka Jašková said. She and her colleague also continue the routine social work with the people from the problematic locality.

Slezská Ostrava launched the public service in March and so those interested have already collected the necessary hours ahead. They picked 15 people out of the initial 60 and split them into three groups.

Will the lost enthusiasm for work return?

“We are among the first municipalities that decided to take the law into practice. We need to give people the work, the tools and check on them but it is worth it. They have already managed to clear out a great mess. A private company would cost us much more,” said Antonín Maštalíř, Slezská Ostrava mayor.

He thinks that what is indispensable is the chance that the unemployed might rediscover enthusiasm for work. The municipality has employed some five people that proved competent in the public service. They also hired more people for the public service.

The municipality cannot employ all that are affected by the law. “That would be some 600 people in our district. Many, of course, are not interested in working,” said Marie Stypková, the town hall spokeswoman.

Bohumín mayor: It doesn’t work
Some municipalities do not provide the public service at all. “I think it doesn’t work,” said Petr Vícha, Bohumín mayor. “I consider it ineffective. It is administratively demanding, the municipality needs to secure the tools, facilities and checking. Still, 20 hours a month of work is laughably little,” said the mayor and ČSSD senator.

Karviná town hall, for example, currently offers work for 26 unemployed and is planning to launch positions for further 200 interested in September.

“Some people started to take interest in the public service after the learnt they received lower bonus. Our previous survey showed that only 180 out of 1,000 of the affected who would be able to work were interested,” said Šárka Swiderová, Karviná town hall spokeswoman.

Not all interested find the job
Original amendment proposal on material poverty suggested 20 hours of free work a week. The lawmakers agreed on 20 hours a month. They found working so many hours for free too cruel and demotivating.

Bohumín and other towns that do not offer the public service recommend those interested to turn to the NGOs. Those provide volunteer work, which is another option of how to meet the required 20 hours a month. Not everyone, however, can become a volunteer, often they need to go through selection process.

Even NGOs do not have enough work for everyone. “There are not jobs for everybody. This is the weakness of the, otherwise very useful law,” said Ivona Šťovíčková from S.T.O.P., that has an accreditation for volunteer.

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