Czech agency for combating social exclusion in crisis

Martin Šimáček, photo: Šárka Ševčíková

The Agency for Social Inclusion is the Czech government’s main tool for tackling some of the country’s poorest and most deprived localities, which are often synonymous with large Roma populations. But in recent weeks the agency itself has grabbed the spotlight and its future one of the main problems to be solved.

Martin Šimáček,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
From the outside at least, the Agency for Social Inclusion appeared until a couple of weeks ago to performing solidly and pushing for a new education policy as one of the main means of lifting the children of deprived families out of the circle of poverty and diminished life prospects. It seemed to have the all important government backing that it needed to succeed.

That impression was shattered when on April 21 the Minister for Human Rights Jiří Dienstbier announced that the long serving head of the agency, Martin Šimáček, had been dismissed. The minister cited problems with some public contracts and Šimáček’s unwillingness to talk about a reorganization of the agency as the main reasons for the step.

Šimáček has been in the post for just over five years with the agency up and running for just one year longer. Work of its almost 70 staff is mainly focused on 36 of the country’s worst blackspots for social deprivation.

But if Dienstbier thought the dust would quickly settle and the agency quickly proceed under a new chief, he was wrong.

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: CTK
Staff at the agency have publicly backed their former boss and attacked the political interference in its affairs. They called on prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka to take the agency away from Dienstbier’s control, a move which the prime minister rejected on Monday.

Vít Lesák is one of the main union representatives of staff at the agency. I asked him what is the basic problem the agency is now facing:

“It has been destabilized without properly explaining what is the future at the agency. Although the minister claims that it will be the same, we know that there were different ideas how to change the organizational structure. There is a crucial change in the director of the agency, questions about how to tackle the problem of social inclusion, whether the emphasis should be on social issues or the ethnic dimension. And crucially, the managerial situation, the day to day operation of the agency, is not properly organized. The employees are worried that they will not have sufficient conditions to do the work properly. This has been happening for two weeks and we are now trying to signal that the problems are real and that we are really, really, facing a crisis and that we need the government, the prime minister, to consider talking to us."

And, if I understand correctly, the workers have threatened to go on strike if there is not some solution?

“Yes, we are prepared to go on strike next week. Currently we have around 60 employees who are willing to go on strike, to be exact 59. And on Monday we have a meeting of the employees to decide about a strike. Still, we hope that the prime minister and government and the minister will consider the situation. So it is still an open question about the strike.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
Given that the prime minister has said that he backs Mr. Dienstbier, do you think that this can be resolved in the next few days?

“No, we certainly don’t think it can be resolved in a few days. But we do think that it is possible that within a few days it is possible to find someone from the official government that can suggest a new way to a solution, not just a rejection of our demands or rejection of the seriousness of the crisis."