Social Watch critical of Czech steps to foster fairer conditions at home and abroad

Photo: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Countries form around the world signed up in 2015 to a United Nations plan for sustainable global develop. It was greeted as an unprecedented move towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. The Czech government was due to give an update on its progress in attaining some of the goals at the UN this week. At the same, the Czech branch of the NGO Social Watch prepared to present its findings about progress or the lack of it locally.

Tomáš Tožička,  photo: archive of Tomáš Tožička,  CC BY-SA 2.0
The shadow report, as the Czech branch of Global Watch describes it, gives a mixed assessment of progress so far. One of the authors of that report, Tomáš Tožička, underlined how the goals should be setting a fundamental framework for Czech policy across a wide range of areas at home and abroad aimed at creating a fairer society.

"Agenda 2030 is nowadays one of the most, if not the most, important document of world sustainable development. It is important also for the Czech Republic because it shows not only how to participate in global sustainable development but also how to guarantee sustainable development in the Czech Republic. We cannot understand sustainable development as only environmental, as we did in the Czech Republic for many years, but sustainable development means also social and economic sustainability.ʺ

Unfortunately, according to the shadow report, the Czech Republic has come up short in delivering some of the promised measures although in some cases they were supposed to be among the coalition government’s flagship social policies. That failure has in part been covered up by a booming economy which has given the government more room to award pay increases to some low paid sectors of the workforce and try to set a higher bar for the rest of the economy by increasing the minimum wage. Tomáš Tožička again:

ʺWhen we look at social and economic development, of course both are interconnected, and thanks to the rapid economic growth there is also a positive influence on social affairs. But, generally, the government is far behind in fulfilling the 2030 agenda. This is especially true of equality goals. For us, a big problem is that Europe, not just the European Union, is still divided between East and West. Convergence and a real partnership between East and West is still a long way from the ideals that we had in the early 1990s."

ʺThis big difference in pay also shows that jobs for women are much lower paid than jobs for men."

While Czech economic growth in 2016 was 2.3 percent, Social Watch’s experts point out that this is around half the level of the previous economic boom which ended in 2008 suggesting that the catch up with more developed economies is slowing down. And they point out that the Czech economic model is still based on low domestic wages, abetted until the start of this year, by an undervalued currency thanks to the low crown policy. And while the Czech Republic can boast the lowest unemployment rates in the EU, low wages mean that working poverty is a reality for many of those with jobs with a quarter of working women estimated to fall into this category.

Basic problems, such as the wide gender pay gap between men and women, which spills over into pension payments as well and higher risk of old age poverty for women; and the fact that many single mothers are caught in the poverty trap, have not been tackled, the watchdog warns. Tomáš Tožička on the pay gap between men and women:

Illustrative photo: Gerd Altmann,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED
ʺThe Czech Republic has one of the highest levels for these differences. It is at the level of 22 percent. Only part of that is accounted for by equal pay for the same work. This big difference in pay also shows that jobs for women are much lower paid than jobs for men.ʺ

Another aspect is domestic violence. The Czech Republic was the last but one EU country in May 2016 to sign up to the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on violence against women and domestic violence. It describes such violence as gender based and makes countries responsible for preventing it. But the convention has not been ratified by Prague so far with Social Watch arguing that politicians are simply not prepared to accept the underlying gender basis for such violence.

One of the government flagship social policies was supposed to be a new law on social housing, tackling the problem that renting let alone buying a flat is impossible for many low earners. Many Czech towns and cities sold off their housing stock in the 1990s meaning that they have little to offer with exploitative hostels often the default last stop for many. The new law was supposed to encourage local councils to develop social housing but it is now effectively shelved ahead of October’s elections. Tomáš Tožička:

ʺIt is really shameful for the Czech Republic to make a business with undemocratic and very dangerous regimes.ʺ

ʺIt’s very hard to say why it did not happen but there was big opposition from the cities and towns. There was also opposition from right wing parties. Because of that the Czech Republic remains one of the very few countries in the world which does not have any sort of social or affordable housing programme. This is a very big problem, especially in Prague and the suburbs of Prague where prices are rising. For many people the price of renting is also unaffordable. It is also happening in other towns and cities in the Czech Republic. It is very short sighted of the politicians to live with this neo-liberal idealogy that the market will solve all of the problems. We see in the United States and in South East Asia that only some public programme can solve this situation. Of course, it does not mean that all housing should be under the state or cities, but there must be some sort of affordable housing programme."

While some steps were taken to deal with the massive problem of Czechs who fall into debt and face debt recovery proceedings and the bailiffs, Social Watch says two fundamental measures to deal with the issue – are also parked in parliament. One in 10 adult Czechs face punitive debt recovery proceedings with the total sum at stake coming to 325 billion crowns, around a quarter of the annual state budget.

Photo: Czech Television
While many aspects of the Czech economy have caught up with developed countries and could claim to be in the first world, Social Watch argues that society as a whole has not moved forward. It argues that the overall political culture still trails the West and the network of community and civil initiatives is lacking with the Czech Republic still in the so-called ‘second world.’ To sum it up, it argues the Czech Republic still displays a major democratic deficit.

On the international scene, Social Watch despairs of Czech official support for arms exports to dubious regimes, such as Iraq and Nigeria. 2016 was a record year for Czech arms exports with the watchdog estimating that 53 percent of them went to undemocratic regimes. It adds that the foreign ministry and ministry of industry of trade have shown no willingness to step up their oversight of where Czech weapons end up. Tomáš Tožička:

ʺIt is really shameful for the Czech Republic to make a business with undemocratic and very dangerous regimes. With this we are supporting violence and the increasing violence in these states. It is in contradiction with what we are saying about human rights and the fight against terrorism."

In the case of arms exports to Nigeria, Social Watch questions whether more weapons to the army will deal with the problem of insurgency in the north of the country or will just serve to escalate problems which the army had a big hand in creating.

ʺThe violence leads to increasing violence, that’s action and reaction."

"We have big problems as regards the Nigerian army and nobody is speaking about that and the fact that violence and mal-treatment by the Nigerian army is one reason why such movements as Boko Haram are growing. The violence leads to increasing violence, that’s action and reaction. And our export of weapons and support for this problematic regime in this way is counterproductive.ʺ

And it also underlines the fact that Czech development aid stands at just 0.14 of Gross Domestic Product, that’s still way below the target of 0.7 percent of GDP pledged by Prague when the country was getting ready to join the European Union back in 2004.