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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights discusses situation of vulnerable groups, including Roma, in dialogue with Slovakia

Committee on Economic, Social
  and Cultural Rights

10 October 2019

Experts also Flag Flouting of Labour Regulations by Companies Employing Temporary Workers

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded today the review of the third periodic report of Slovakia on measures taken to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  

Committee Experts raised the situation of groups of persons facing discrimination, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, persons with disabilities and Roma.  They also requested information on measures taken to address violations of the rights of temporary workers.

Committee Experts remarked that the poverty rate among Roma was more than six times higher than the general population.  It was also three to six times higher than Roma populations in other comparable European Union countries.  Roma housing segregation had been increasing in scope and severity in recent years.  What measures had been adopted to put an end to the process of placing Roma children in segregated schools for children with disabilities on the basis of their ethnic background?  Not being able to get married impeded same-sex couples’ enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the Covenant.  Temporary employment agencies paid workers less than statutory minimum wage or did not pay them at all.  How was the Government controlling these agencies?

The delegation said that Roma communities were marginalized and segregated.  The Government had a strategy for the integration of the Roma community which was comprised of several action plans on health, financial literacy, employment and education, amongst other areas.   It partnered with non-governmental organizations to provide services to the Roma.  Slovakia was also rolling out national projects to regularize the situation of marginalized settlements through the establishment of leases.  Two weeks ago, a member of Parliament had been sentenced by a court for expressing hateful ideas about Roma people.  The sentence handed down led him to lose his seat, something which had never happened before in other European countries to the delegation’s knowledge.  The Government had taken several steps to address the temporary work issue, such as increasing the legal responsibility of companies employing temporary workers vis-à-vis labour laws.

In his concluding remarks, Branislav Ondrus, State Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic, thanked the Committee for the constructive and fruitful dialogue.  The recommendations of the Committee would be taken by the Government seriously and would help the Government continue to implement the Covenant for the benefit of the fundamental rights of the people of the Slovak Republic.

Micheal Windfuhr, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia, thanked the delegation for the additional data which had allowed the Committee to put them better in Slovakia’s context.  The Committee felt that Slovakia had a strong commitment to implement the Covenant.  He noted that the delegation had not negated the existence of problems and recalled that it was the Committee's job to pay attention to the particularly vulnerable groups.

Renato Zerbini Ribeiro Leão, Committee Chairperson, concluded the meeting by saying that it had been a constructive dialogue.  

The delegation of Slovakia consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport, the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, and the Permanent Mission of Slovakia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Monday, 14 October to hold a discussion on land.

Report

The Committee has before it the third periodic report of Slovakia (E/C.12/SVK/3).

Presentation of the Report

BRANISLAV ONDRUS, State Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic, said as some time had passed since the submission of the report, which covered the period 2012 to 2016, the delegation wished to discuss in its opening remarks current issues concerning the development of Slovak society as of 2017.

The process of preparation of the national report, the response to the list of issues as well as the participation of the Slovak delegation before the Committee here today had involved broad, open consultations with representatives of national and ethnic minorities, civil society, the academic community, as well as further relevant stakeholders.

The issue of ensuring dignified living conditions for employees, including a decent salary for work, was one of the main topics in the Slovak Republic.  With effect from 1 July 2019, an employee's guarantee for remuneration, which shall not be lower than the minimum wage, had been established directly in the Constitution.  

The minimum wage in the Slovak Republic had increased from 327.20 euros per month to 405 euros, which represented a 23.78 per cent increase.   The unemployment rate had even reached a new historical low of 4.97 per cent in July 2019.  The number of job vacancies had increased.

The Government paid particular attention to the creation of better conditions for reconciling family and working life and reducing the gender pay gap.  

The Government encouraged fathers to participate more actively in childcare through the possibility of paternity leave with an allowance level which equalled net income.  While in 2014 there had been less than 300 men on paternity leave, in 2018 that number stood at over 5,300.

In the last decade, the Government had adopted a number of measures to combat and prevent violence against women.  Even though Slovakia had not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention, the legislation was already in line with all its requirements.  

The principle of non-discrimination was well established in the legal system of the Slovak Republic.  Since 2019, the Slovak National Centre for Human Rights had received an increased budget which was 40 per cent higher compared to previous years and had been seen its staff reinforced by seven new expert employees.

The long-term agenda of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma communities was the introduction of compulsory pre-school education for all children older than five years.  From the 1st of September 2020, every 5-year-old child must attend kindergarten – at least one year before the start of primary school.
         
The Culture of National Minorities subsidy programme had been a significant financial instrument for ensuring the preservation, expression, protection and development of the identity and cultural values of the national majority and national minorities and ethnic groups under the auspices of the Government Plenipotentiary.

First Round of Questions by Committee Experts

RODRIGO UPRIMNY, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia, started by paying homage to Committee Expert Waleed Sadi, who had passed away on Monday and had been set to act as Rapporteur for the examination of the report of Slovakia.
There were very few examples of the Covenant being applied by judges in Slovakia.  Were they applying it in the internal legal order?  If not, why? What measures was the Government taking to address this situation?
The Slovak Centre for Human Rights, the State party’s national human rights institution, had a B status.  The Committee had been informed of issues affecting it like inadequate funding, lack of transparency, and independence issues, inter alia.  Given that there were other national human rights institutions, how did the Government ensure they worked in a harmonized manner?

High income countries should allocate at least 0.7 per cent of their gross national product to international aid assistance.  What steps was the Government considering to meet that target?

Turning to corruption, the Rapporteur cited the recently killing of a journalist, and the country’s poor showing on Transparency International’s Corruption Index.  Why was corruption persisting in the country?
He requested information on the situation of groups of persons facing discrimination, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons and persons with disabilities.  Undocumented migrant women could not access maternal care.  Gender equality issues remained in the State party: according to the Gender Equality Index, no significant progress had been made between 2005 and 2015.  In other words, despite anti-discrimination provisions included in the Constitution and various legal documents, discrimination persisted.  While there were legal provisions that could be improved, the crux of the issue was the implementation of laws on non-discrimination.

The Rapporteur encouraged the Government to introduce same-sex marriage legislation.

First Round of Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained that training was provided to judges on anti-discrimination.  

The National Centre for Human Rights had a yearly budget of 700,000 euros.  An amendment was under review to address administrative shortcomings and bolster the Centre’s independence.  Seven additional experts had recently joined its staff.  The Centre organized workshops and provided training to further implement international standards in the country, while raising awareness.

There was a Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, who was achieving great results.  The Commissioner monitored the rights and protection of persons with disabilities and published an annual report assessing the situation.  

The Ministry of Justice funded non-governmental organizations working on disability issues, the list of which was available online.  
In addition to the Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, there was a Commissioner for Children.  They were both elected by Parliament, to which they reported.  State institutions were obliged to provide them with any information they requested and cooperate with them, notably in the context of investigations they conducted.  The reports of the Commissioners were not only discussed during sessions of Parliamentary Committees, but also during plenary sessions.
On corruption, the Government was taking legal steps to turn words into action. The National Labour Inspectorate had the right and indeed the obligation to protect whistle blowers.  Employers had no right to fire them; any decision regarding their work had to be discussed with, and approved by, the National Labour Inspectorate.

The Government was not planning on modifying the law to allow same-sex marriage, as concerns had been expressed by the public and Parliament on this matter.
The delegation remarked that the Gender Equality Index tried to evaluate qualitative issues with quantitative indicators.  The Slovak Republic offered parental leave, for instance -- something which was not reflected in the Index.  Not all areas needed a lot of improvement in Slovakia; in some of them, the situation was better in Slovakia than in other European countries.

Roma communities were marginalized and segregated, said the delegation.  The Government was rolling out national projects aiming to regularize the situation of marginalized settlements through the establishment of leases.  A transitional housing project sought to improve living conditions.  It provided support to people who had been living in unsuitable conditions by helping them acquire good habits.  The end goal was to the reduce the gap in living conditions in the country.

There were about 40 social enterprises that employed persons with disabilities and Roma people.  Most of them had obtained a job for the first time through this programme.  Data had shown that this approach was an effective way to foster their entry in the job market.

Follow-up Questions and Responses

An Expert said that not being able to get married impeded same-sex couples’ enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the Covenant.  Taking into account the delegation’s response to the previous question on this matter, was the Government considering other means of recognizing same-sex unions.
RODRIGO UPRIMNY, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia asked if the delegation could provide examples of high-profile cases of prosecutions related to corruption.

In response, the delegation said that companies could sign on to a diversity charter, on a voluntary basis, which prohibited discrimination.  Some of these companies allowed employees in same-sex relationships to benefit from the same rights as those in heterosexual unions.  Furthermore, persons living in “close relationships” had some rights related to heritage, despite the absence of a specific law on civil partnerships.

On corruption, the delegation said that in March 2019, a new act on the protection of whistle blowers had come into force.  It notably established an office to deal with whistle blowers, the head of which was currently being recruited.

A chart with data on corruption charges would be provided to the Committee, which covered the years 2014 to 2018.

BRANISLAV ONDRUS, State Secretary of the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic, remarked that the Constitution defined marriage as the legal partnership of a man and a woman.  An ordinary law could not, therefore, establish same-sex marriage.  There was room for discussion, however, and that discussion was ongoing.  After the general elections that were scheduled to take place in a few months, there would likely be more openness on the part of elected officials to address this issue.

Two former ministers had been charged with corruption and subsequently prosecuted and found guilty.  They were currently in jail.  The accusations were related to the misuse of European development funds.  In addition, three persons were being prosecuted for being complicit in the assassination of journalist Ján Kuciak.  The trial would begin in a month.

Second Round of Questions by Committee Experts

MICHAEL WINDFUHR, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia, asked for information on the cost and the number of beneficiaries of the system of assistance in material need programme, and on long-term unemployment.

Could the delegation provide additional details on the unemployment situation of the Roma? 

Could it also comment on the link between the education system and the labour market today?

Research by the European Institute for Gender Equality indicated that Slovakia ranked among the countries where no or little progress had been made in gender equality between 2005-2015.  It ranked 26 out of 28 in comparison to other European Union Countries.  In that context, Mr. Windfuhr inquired about the results of its Strategy for Gender Equality 2014-2019.
On the integration of persons with disabilities in the labour market, he asked about the largest challenges facing this group.
Temporary employment agencies were reported by the Slovak national human rights institutions for paying workers less than statutory minimum wage or not paying for the work carried out at all.  A common practice for temporary employment agencies seemed to also be to employ foreign workers from third countries outside of the European Union, without meeting the statutory requirements for the employment of foreign workers.  How was the Government controlling these agencies?

What was the rate of unionization of workers in Slovakia?  Was security for collective bargaining de facto guaranteed in law 2/1991?

The poverty rate among Roma was more than six times higher than the general population, and three to six times higher than Roma populations in other European Union countries with a similar population of Roma.

The Rapporteur requested information about current social inclusion and support programmes, and material aid; current or future strategies to reduce poverty risks among vulnerable groups, in particular Roma people and migrants; and the non-contributory schemes available for other disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, including low-income families, ethnic minorities, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers.

Second Round of Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said long-term unemployment had decreased, as had the unemployment rate amongst vulnerable segments of the population.  In comparison to 2012, the number of unemployed persons had decreased by almost 30 per cent.  

Having a Gender National Strategy was a priority.  In 2018, the employment rate of women was slightly below the European Union average.  Full-time employment was standard for Slovak women, as opposed to other countries where a lot of women worked part-time.  Despite the relatively low employment rate of women with children below the age of six, it had increased faster than the European Union average.

The Government had a strategy for the integration of the Roma community which was comprised of several action plans on health, financial literacy, employment and education, amongst other areas.

Third Round of Questions by Committee Experts

SANDRA LIEBENBERG, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia, requested information on the evaluation of the effects of the establishment of a uniform framework for childcare providers for children under the age of three.

According to information that the Committee had received, foreigners in Slovakia might be detained on the basis of an administrative decision.  What measures were being taken to ensure that families with children were not subjected to immigration detention? 
The Rapporteur asked for information about the outcomes of the national action plan for the prevention and elimination of violence against women 2014-2019.

The right to housing was not guaranteed by the Constitution and the Slovak Republic had opted out of the provision on the right to housing in the revised European Social Charter.  What policies had been developed to ensure accessible and adequate housing, especially for vulnerable groups?

She remarked that the issue of Roma housing segregation had been increasing in scope and severity in recent years.  Roma in Slovakia living in segregated settlements faced an increased threat of forced eviction.  This was due to changes in land ownership rules and limited legal protection against forced evictions.  What was being done to address these problems?

The Rapporteur asked if the Government had considered adopting measures to revise rent-control schemes.

She also inquired about current plans to reinforce public hospitals’ funding and infrastructure to ensure populations’ access to quality healthcare services, and equal access to quality healthcare services, including for migrants and asylum-seekers. 

Could the delegation inform the Committee about measures being taken to prevent coercive sterilization of Romani women?

Third Round of Replies by the Delegation

BRANISLAV ONDRUS, State Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic, said the law on temporary work had been amended 13 times over the past seven years as large abuses had been identified.  Many European countries faced similar issues, which were also addressed at the European Union level.  

These problems had been deepened by the increase of cross-border service provision.  For instance, a company based in Romania that provided services to a company in the Slovak Republic and employed Slovak citizens was not subject to Slovak labour laws, even if the employees were working in Slovakia.  Some of these enterprises based abroad were letter box companies actually owned by Slovaks. The Government had taken several steps to address this issue, by increasing the legal responsibility of companies employing temporary workers vis-à-vis labour laws.

On trade unions, he explained that new legislation had been adopted on sectoral agreements.  Even if only 15 per cent of employees were unionized, over 75 per cent of employees in a given sector were covered by sectoral collective bargaining agreements, whether or not they were members of a union.

On minimum wage, change had been made whereby if bilateral bargaining did not lead to a satisfactory agreement, the minimum wage would be set at 60 per cent of the average wage of the previous year. 

The unemployment rate stood at 15 per cent for young people and at 21.5 per cent for people aged 55 years and older.  Long-term unemployment continued to pose a challenge to the Government.  In 2016, an action plan tackling this issue had been adopted.  The percentage of unemployed people affected by long-term unemployment had gone down from 57 per cent in 2016 to 42 per cent in 2018. Taking into account that the overall unemployment rate had also reduced over that period, it could be said that many individuals who were in the long-term unemployment category had been able to find a job.

The process to regularize illegal Roma settlements had proven extremely difficult.  Under the Communist regime, all land had been nationalized, Mr. Ondrus recalled.  By then, the settlements were not considered a problem; in fact, it suited the Communist regime.  After the fall of the Communist regime, land was handed back to previous owners or their descendants.  This created a situation where a given piece of land that only a few years ago only had one owner – that is, the State – could now be owned by more than 40 people.  This was why coming to an agreement suitable to all the parties involved in seeking to regularize illegal settlements was long.

The delegation explained that the Government partnered with non-governmental organizations to provide services to the Roma community.  Segregation was not deepening but rather decreasing, thanks to European legislation and the strict conditions attached to the provision of European project development funds, which sought to foster de-segregation, de-stigmatization and de-ghettoization.

Turning to domestic violence, the delegation said significant progress had been achieved in improving services related to this matter.  There were 23 counselling centres that provided support to victims of violence.  Various campaigns had been launched to raise awareness, including one targeting 16 to 25 year olds that focused on consent.

Migration was a minor problem in Slovakia, as it was mainly a transit country.  Fewer than 200 asylum applications had been received in 2018.

Follow-up Questions and Responses

An Expert asked about access to abortion.
RODRIGO UPRIMNY, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia, asked about access to sexual and reproductive health services.

An Expert expressed concerns about access to adequate safe water, in particular for disadvantaged groups.  He also asked about measures that had been taken to address obesity.

MICHAEL WINDFUHR, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia, asked about steps taken by the State party to ensure that pesticides and other products that had been banned in the European Union were not exported from Slovakia.

BRANISLAV ONDRUS, State Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic, stressed that the Government had not introduced legislation that would restrict access to abortion.  The Government had nothing to do with the proposals seeking to restrict access to abortion that had been put forward in Parliament.  Three such proposals had already been rejected by Parliament.  The Government did not hold the opinion that Slovakia should restrict access to abortion.

The Government had hired assistants that worked on the provision of services to the Roma community.  These assistants spoke Roma languages and played a key role in identifying the needs of Roma women.  Any breach of the medical code of conduct was addressed by the Government.  When a patient’s life was in danger, tools could be used to restrict that individual’s freedom, but only for the required time.

To prevent obesity, the Government partnered with physicians to provide patients with educational materials about nutrition and lifestyle choice.  A national action plan had been rolled out in 2015.  The health of citizens was a priority and Slovakia was committed to tackling obesity.  The Ministry of Health had declared 2109 the Year of Prevention.

The sterilization law had been changed dramatically following the publication of the report.  The forced sterilization case mentioned by the delegation had taken place under a legal regime that no longer existed.  It was a very sensitive issue in Slovakia: some doctors were afraid to perform sterilization.  Following the changes in legislation, no new problematic cases had emerged.  This showed that Slovakia had taken steps to ensure that forced sterilizations such as the case referred to by the delegation did not occur again.

Fourth Round of Questions by Committee Experts

LAURA-MARIA CRACIUNEAN-TATU, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia, asked about plans, if any, to introduce sexual education in the school curricula?

The enrolment of children under the age of three was very low.  Only 5 per cent were enrolled in a formal early childhood education and care setting in 2017, compared to 26 per cent on average across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.  What measures had been taken to increase investments and to sustain a higher enrolment in early childhood education and care programmes?
The Rapporteur inquired about measures in place in order to encourage the enrolment of students in tertiary education programmes and to ensure that they did not drop out.

She raised several concerns regarding Roma children’s right to education.  What measures had been adopted to put an end to the process of placing Roma children in segregated schools for children with disabilities on the basis of their ethnic background?  How did authorities incentivize non-Roma parents to enrol or keep their children in mixed schools or facilitate the enrolment of Roma in mixed or majority non-Roma schools?  What measures had been adopted to eradicate widespread prejudice and extremely low expectations for Romani children among teachers?
Anti-Roma and anti-minority rhetoric reportedly persisted in the Slovak society overall.  Some politicians and public figures engaged in it.  The use of such language appeared to have gradually become accepted as normal, including by some officials.  And yet, there was no comprehensive governmental strategy to counter the increasing anti-Roma and anti-minority rhetoric in public discourse and to proactively foster respect and appreciation for diversity and for the contributions made by all national minorities to Slovakian society.  What measures had been adopted to address this issue and ensure that authorities and politicians were held to account?

Fourth Round of Replies by the Delegation

BRANISLAV ONDRUS, State Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic, said some of the data mentioned by Committee Expert was wrong.

The delegation explained that since 2015, the enrolment of children from disadvantage backgrounds in special schools had been banned.  This policy had had a positive impact.  The Slovak Republic did not collect ethnic data but had data on nationality.  Data about the Roma community was in part based on Roma people declaring other nationalities, such as Hungarian.
This change had been part of a broader reform which had led to the development and implementation of a two-year action plan.  It sought to promote integration. Work was also being done to improve the working conditions of teachers, by notably increasing their salaries and providing them with more autonomy.  It was important that the Slovak Republic had a good regional schooling system that was available to all social classes and responsive to the individual needs of pupils.

Compulsory enrolment in education would come into force in 2021 for children aged four years, and then for children aged three from 2022.  A prevention system was in place to eliminate barriers impeding the success of children.  In 2017, thanks to the school reform, 863 children had been transferred from special schools to mainstream schools.  Efforts were being made to ensure there were enough teachers with a good command of Roma language and specialized training.  The Government was also gradually getting rid of the “double shift” system in schools.  Dual education would be offered in universities.
BRANISLAV ONDRUS, State Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic, said the integration of migrants was not an issue in Slovakia.  More than two thirds of migrants were foreign workers who stayed in Slovakia for less than six months on average.  Two thirds of Serbian citizens that came to Slovakia were ethnic Slovaks.  Ukrainians did not have difficulty to speak in Slovak, as their language was very similar.

In Slovakia, just like other European countries, there were politicians who hated migrants and expressed hateful comments while discussing migration.  It was, however, one of the countries with the lowest number of extremists elected to Parliament.  Further, two weeks ago, a member of Parliament had been sentenced by a court for expressing hateful ideas about Roma people.  The sentence handed down led him to lose his seat, something which had not happened in other European countries to his knowledge.  Slovakia was also the only country where the State had created a day dedicated to the commemoration of the Roma Holocaust.
Concluding Remarks

BRANISLAV ONDRUS, State Secretary, Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic, thanked the Committee for the constructive and fruitful dialogue.  The recommendations of the Committee would be taken by the Government seriously and would help the Government continue to implement the Covenant for the benefit of the fundamental rights of the people of the Slovak Republic.

MICHAEL WINDFUHR, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Slovakia, thanked the delegation for the additional data which had allowed the Committee to put them better in Slovakia’s context.  The Committee felt that Slovakia had a strong commitment to implement the Covenant.  He noted that the delegation had not negated the existence of problems and recalled that it was the Committee's job to pay attention to particularly vulnerable groups.

RENATO ZERBINI RIBEIRO LEÃO, Committee Chairperson, concluded the meeting by saying that it had been a frank, constructive and open dialogue.

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