A Sideways Look

The Workplace Challenges Faced by Vulnerable Social Groups
TEXT: Nemanja Rujević - 23. September 2021

Members of vulnerable groups in the Balkans often face challenges in the workplace. People with disabilities frequently contend with ignorant or hurtful remarks, as do Roma and members of the LGBT community. But there are worse types of discrimination. The solution is simple: treat people as human beings.

Milica Knežević had just about had enough when a professor at her university casually decided one day to give a lecture on the first floor, even though it was scheduled on the ground floor of the building. For other students, it didn't make much difference; they would simply climb the stairs. It made all the difference to Milica. In a building without an elevator, the change of floor meant that both her and her wheelchair would have to be carried up the stairs by friends.

She no longer wanted to suffer such humiliation. "That started my fight with the faculty," says Milica, 28, who currently works as a software engineer for an IT company.

Milica is from Čestereg, a village near Zrenjanin in northern Serbia. She did not get to see the faculty adjust the access and toilets for people who use wheelchairs during her time there, but her struggle ensured that the next generation of students would see those things set right.

Milica’s new life began in 2009, when the car she was in overturned in her neighboring village. A fractured skull and spinal cord injury led to a diagnosis of quadriplegia.

"After the accident, I had no idea what it would mean for me,” said Milica. “I thought I would recover after two or three months, that I would return to playing volleyball. But the doctor said that would not happen. He said that I had a one percent chance of moving any part of my body, and that I would probably spend the rest of my life in bed. That is something that has stayed etched in my memory.”

It is a miracle that Milica can move her arms today, although not entirely her hands. When asked how she uses a phone or a laptop, she says with a laugh that people are not really aware of all they can do when they have to.

"The fact that I use a wheelchair does not mean that I have any special needs, as they usually say. The injury forced me to grow up quickly and realize that I have equal rights in every respect, whether it is education or employment," adds Milica.

What hurt Milica the most was being underestimated. She says that it is clear at first glance that she can't work in a warehouse and carry bags — but why would a wheelchair prevent her from being a great programmer?

"Nobody viewed me differently"

But in Serbia, a Balkan country of seven million, data from the Statistical Office shows that only nine percent of people with disabilities have paid jobs. The law says that companies with more than twenty employees must have at least one disabled person on staff for every fifty employees.

Milica, who occasionally writes about her experiences on her blog Choose to Live, wanted to get a job at any cost. She was very dedicated to studying, spending a portion of her student years in the United States and the Netherlands. She soon discovered that she could not work in many companies in Zrenjanin because the office buildings were not set up to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

"The state provides employers with a significant portion of the salary for a person with a disability, if they hire such a person, but that only lasts for a year,” says Milica. “Means are also provided to adjust the workspace. But, further on, this is not taken into account. Fictional positions are often opened in companies to take money. When there are no more incentives, disabled people are shown the door."

What hurt Milica the most was being underestimated. She says that it is clear at first glance that she can't work in a warehouse and carry bags—but why would a wheelchair prevent her from being a great programmer or something similar?

Today, she is happy to have found a job at a Dutch IT company in Zrenjanin. "When I applied, I passed the same tests and interviews as the others, and no one mentioned my disability. When they offered me a contract, they asked if the width of the door was enough for me. They also renovated the toilet and made a small ramp at one step. Nobody underestimated me here, nor did they look at me differently."

The sideways look is a longstanding problem for other vulnerable groups in the workplace, confirms Sara Lalić. She works about 450 kilometers west of Zrenjanin in the Croatian capital of Zagreb at the Center for Peace Studies, a non-governmental organization. Her work is focused on the problems faced by the most discriminated ethnic group in the Balkans: the Roma.

"The small part of the Roma population who manage to get a job very often experience discrimination in the workplace," said Lalić. "People are reporting harassment. Derogatory, offensive terms. A general hostile environment, whether created by superiors or colleagues. Jokes about Roma."

A vicious cycle of discrimination

According to research the Center carried out in 2017, only seven percent of Roma have a regular full-time job with a contract and on-time salary. Twenty percent have experienced discrimination in the workplace because they are Roma.

Lalić says that Croatia, as well as the entire Balkans, in principle have а problem with respecting workers' rights and with labor inspectors that are willing to turn a blind eye to illegal work. When you add that to the social distance kept towards Roma, the result is a toxic cocktail.

Additional research carried out in the region regularly shows that among Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Montenegrins, only a minority would accept a Roma as a friend, and a single-digit percentage of people would accept a Roma as a spouse.

"It is a matter of historically aggregated discrimination. There are records that say that Roma have been an undesirable group for centuries, which conditions their position. They are in a vicious cycle that awaits their children as well," says Lalić. "There is nothing in the people themselves that makes them live in poverty. The way the Roma population lives in the Balkans is nothing but the result of systemic discrimination."

Unlike people with disabilities in the workplace, Roma do not need special toilets or custom equipment that can be expensive. When asked how she would advise employers to better protect employees from this ethnic group, Lalić says, "Employers should respect the law first. It is certainly useful to establish clear protocols against discrimination, mobbing and harassment. Have a clear method and competencies for registering complaints. They should educate themselves about that, but also educate all the other employees. We need to find ways to actively work towards achieving a pleasant working atmosphere for all—to encourage socializing, getting to know each other. A lot can be achieved that way."

Both Milica and Lalić agree that this is exactly what’s needed. You do not need to do anything special in the workplace—just treat people as people.

Keeping silent about sexual orientation in the workplace

Members of the LGBT community in the region are suffering the same fate. Unlike Roma or people with disabilities, for whom it is impossible to hide their identity, homosexuals often opt for mimicry in the workplace.

According to the 2018 World Bank survey "Life on the Margins," the percentage of people who hide their sexual orientation at work in this region ranges from 47 percent in Slovenia to 71 percent in Kosovo. Despite that, 16 percent of the population claims to have experienced unequal treatment when it comes to working conditions or wages, and 14 percent have suffered negative comments in the workplace.

German journalist Norbert Mappes-Niediek, an expert on the Balkans, thinks that the main reason is that Eastern Europeans consider the attitude towards the LGBT community to be reflective of the Kulturkampf led against the hated West, which allegedly imposes its values. In his book "Divided Sky of Europe," published this year, Mappes-Niediek points out that for many decades, the former communist East was more open to homosexuality than the West, where homosexuals were persecuted by law.

A few years ago, one transgender person's sacking from their job in Serbia resonated in the media like never before. Helena Vuković was forced to retire in 2014 as a major in the Serbian Army, even though she was only 41 years old. Helena was born in a male body, but she announced that she was entering the process of transitioning into the female gender. On the occasion of her retirement, it was officially stated that Vuković committed "a serious violation of public morale and damaged the reputation of the Army."

Although the minister in charge at the time called that rationale an “administrative mistake,” Helena was not reinstated. She has since become one of the most famous transgender rights activists in the region.

"That was the beginning of the trans revolution in Serbia. It wouldn’t have resonated as much if I had been a seamstress or a pharmacist, yet I was an army officer and of senior rank, at that. That means the case has an entirely different connotation. The media helped, which brought the whole story closer to the public, gave it a human moment. As the story reached an ever-increasing number of people, the positive comments outweighed negative ones", Vuković said in a recent interview.

No one wants pity

Back in Zrenjanin, Milica knows very well how someone from a vulnerable social group feels. People often ask her how they should address her, so as not to offend her. "Well, address me like any person, it's simple,” she says. “Disability is just one kind of diversity."

Milica is thriving at work and says she is happy that there are no thoughtless comments from colleagues. To her, the only thing that can be more irritating than the comments is pity. "When you try to find meaning in life and do the things you love, and you encounter pity there, you can only feel worse. I heard so many variations of ‘Oh I would kill myself in your place’ and 'your parents’ life is over now.’ That is not true, and it is not encouraging. If you can't do better than that, then you better keep quiet."

Now she often hangs out with colleagues after work and tries to make up for everything she missed when she was a teenager. "It is important to be equal, to participate,” says Milica. “Of course you feel bad if you feel excluded. I know that very well; if friends hadn't dragged me up the stairs, I would never have finished college or been where I am now."

Nemanja Rujević is a journalist with the German broadcaster DW and a reporter for the Belgrade-based weekly magazine Vreme.

This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Helvetas MosaicSubscribe to never miss an issue.

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