To make significant changes, the authorities have to make difficult decisions in terms of reforms and prioritize human rights protection.
Since Ombudsman Lora Vidović took office five years ago, the number of cases where citizens sought Ombudsman’s help has risen significantly. However, the number of human rights violations hasn’t changed much.
What would you like to single out in the 2017 Ombudsman’s Report as key in terms of the current situation with human rights in Croatia?
The general conclusion is that there have been minor improvements, but the systemic problems, those faced by citizens on a daily basis and in a wide scope of areas of life, remain the same – in judiciary, health, social security, prisons, work and employment, to name a few. A major cause and, at the same time a result of human rights violations and discrimination, is poverty, as the statistics show that every fifth person does not have enough resources for basic needs, while almost one in 10 live in extreme poverty. Those who barely make ends meet don’t have the same access to different services, like healthcare for instance, due to the even longer waiting lists for health services in 2017 than in previous years, or justice, due to the almost non-functional free legal aid system. The poverty situation is more pronounced in rural areas, in comparison with urban areas. For example, the risk of poverty in Brodsko-Posavska and Virovitičko-Srijemska counties is three times higher than in Zagreb or Primorsko-Goranska County. Population in many rural areas faces problems with access to various public services, like adequate transport or social services. A major obstacle in the progression of human rights situation is the fact that citizens don’t have information about their rights and they mistrust institutions. This means they often do not even look for protection, but remain stuck in the closed circle of human rights violations or discrimination, which significantly reduces the quality of their lives. Our study from 2016 shows that 68 percent of those who were discriminated against in the past five years, did not report it to anyone, mostly because they think reporting would not change anything, or it would, but for the worse. To make a change, we try to be as accessible and proactive as we can – visiting rural areas, closely cooperating with NGO’s, participating in legislative procedures, promoting human rights and equality in the media, including social media. And the results are visible! Since I took office five years ago, we had a 78 percent increase in cases we have acted upon. We initiate them mostly on the basis of complaints received, but also following information published in the media, and other sources. The increase is also partly a result of opening of regional offices, which have started operating in the past four years in Osijek, Rijeka and Split.
Violations of labour rights and work relations are the most common reasons why you people contacted you in 2017, and which have reached the peak for the first time in two decades since the Ombudsman’s office was founded. Is this an exception or is it a serious trend of a deteriorating adherence to labour rights?
Yes, for the first time ever, we have received the highest number of complaints in the area of work and employment, but these complaints have been among the top three for some time now. Also, in recent years, work and employment have been the number one area in terms of complaints on discrimination. I would not necessarily say it means that the situation is deteriorating, rather that citizens increasingly recognize us as an institution worth contacting. The complaints we receive show that workers are often faced with three difficult choices – to accept violation of their rights, quit their job, or move out of the country. So yes, the level of protection of worker’s rights is unacceptably low, and I hope that my recommendations will help the state to make significant steps towards their better protection. Otherwise, and especially in the context of better income, the employed and the unemployed, youth and those with work experience will continue to look for other countries to work in, which is a trend we have to stop.
Who violates labour rights the most often and what kind of violations are those? What are the consequences of this trend?
We receive complaints from workers in the private sector, as well as from state and public services. It is important to say that we do not have the authority to act on complaints regarding the private sector, unless they refer to discrimination. In other situations, like issues of unpaid overtime or even salary, or unlawful dismissal, we provide citizens with general legal information and contacts in authorized bodies. However, regardless of our authority, we use the information from all complaints to warn on serious issues and call for systemic changes, particularly through annual reporting to the Parliament. One example of this is the case of a man who signed 54 fixed term job contracts in 15 years, with the same employer! It is necessary to revise the legislation regarding this type of contracts, otherwise the workers will continue to live in a great uncertainty, which surely is a problem that has a great impact on the negative demographic trends. Positive steps have been made to eradicate the situations when employers don’t reimburse salaries, by making it a criminal offense, but it is still a reality for some workers. The employment procedures in public companies are not transparent enough, and candidates are often convinced they do not have the same access to public service employment and that procedures are carried out pro forma. When it comes to complaints on discrimination, they mostly refer to age discrimination. We see some employers consider those in their 40s to be too old, and we even had a case of a man who was let in his mid-thirties, for the same reason. Discrimination in this area is also a problem for the Roma population, mostly because of the prejudice against their lifestyle and work habits. We found that 24 percent of citizens would not hire a Roma person, if they had their own business, and 48 percent are convinced they don’t even want to work at all. The same prejudice is present when it comes to union members, who are also a group hit by discrimination, and as much as 38 percent of citizens think they are only “troublemakers”.
In 2017, citizens continued to face almost the same problems as in previous years. Is it because these problems are so deeply rooted, or are the governments and the Parliament not paying enough attention to them?
To make significant changes, the authorities have to make difficult decisions in terms of reforms and prioritize human rights protection. A great indicator is the tax policy, through which the state clearly shows its stand. The tax policy can be used in providing substantial funds to make human rights a reality for all citizens, but also in showing the capability of the state to eliminate discrimination and inequalities. The recent tax reform did not target low-income households, and the European Commission notes it could increase inequalities, which would lead to an even more difficult situation for those who are already lacking funds.
We did note some positive changes in 2017, including those that were made following our recommendations. For example, the changes of the Law on Domestic Violence Protection against for the first time, recognizes people over the age of 65 as a vulnerable group, and their neglect is now defined as a form of violence as well. Another significant change is aimed at stronger protection of the elderly against abuse of the care-until-death contracts, with the changes of the Social Welfare Act forbidding those providing social services, their employees and their family members to offer the support to elderly they provide services to. Also, after almost 4 years, a new National Anti-Discrimination Plan has been adopted by the Government, as well as the following Action Plan, and I hope that the goals and measures they define will be implemented.
How did the pre-accession period and now the EU membership affect violation of human rights? Are our citizens now more protected than before?
The mere membership negotiations were an excellent way of strengthening legislative framework in many areas, and bolstering our institution was included as the benchmark in the Chapter 23 Judiciary and Fundamental Rights. The EU has insisted that the institution should be sufficiently staffed and have a higher budget, which helped us to implement the Anti Discrimination mandate and, later on, the National Preventive Mechanism mandate (torture prevention under the OPCAT). One of the conditions set during the accession negotiations was for Croatia to ensure a proper follow-up on our recommendations, which was delegated to the Government Office for Human Rights and Rights of National Minorities. Unfortunately, we have now already gone through three Annual Reports without the Government’s recommendation follow-up, and without assurances that it will be prepared for the latest one. This is not only a breach of one of the prerequisites for the closure of negotiations on the Chapter 23, but also a drawback in terms of human rights protection and promotion mechanism in Croatia.
Do you think that institutions and the media have become more aware and conscientious in terms of ban on discrimination?
I am sure that the situation is somewhat better than it used to be, but there is still so much room for improvement. We see it in judicial cases regarding discrimination, which we analyze every year, that there are often high quality decisions, well explained, which are valuable not only for the victims that filed the lawsuit, but also for everybody included in the proceedings in the future, be it the victims, their lawyers or judges. But generally, our findings are not encouraging: the court proceedings last too long and the fines are below the minimum set by the law. When it comes to the media, we are still witnesses of discriminatory speech.
7. How much has the attitude of the authorities towards the Ombudsman changed in these two decades?
We are an independent state body, and always determine the quality of our relationship with the authorities by the quality of our communication. Speaking in general terms, I am satisfied with that communication for the most part, as an increasing number of state bodies are communicating in a timely and quality manner, with some exceptions. However, there are still cases which compel us to write to the Government to warn that a certain ministry, recently the Ministry of Construction and Physical Planning, is not replying to our letters on time. But eventually, all of them do! The only exception in the public sphere is the University of Zagreb, the only institution that has completely been ignoring our formal letters.