Roma woman breaks legal barrier for minorities

  • 2006-05-31
  • By Elizabeth Celms

Roma in Latvia continue to struggle against harsh stereotypes.

RIGA - A Jelgava woman made judicial history last week as the first Roma in Latvia to win a case of employment discrimination. On May 25, the Jelgava City Court ruled in favor of Sanita Kozlovska, who claimed that a local retail shop had refused to hire her because she was Roma. The court ruled that the Palso company, which owns the Jelgava clothing shop, must pay 1,000 lats (1,422 euros) in compensation to the plaintiff.

The National Human Rights Bureau had requested 5,000 lats in moral damages. The case marks the first time in Latvia's history that a court has recognized ethnic discrimination in hiring an employee. The National Human Rights Bureau, which filed the case on behalf of Kozlovska, rejoiced over the ruling, calling it "a monumental step for Latvia's Roma."
"Finally, ethnic minorities can see that it is possible to win in court," said lawyer Gunta Berzina, who represented Kozlovska and the human rights bureau. "If there are no examples of successful discrimination cases, then the laws defending people's rights carry no weight."

In November 2005, Kozlovska applied for a sales job at a Palso clothing store. Before even being questioned about her qualifications, Kozlovska was denied the position because she "had an accent when speaking Latvian."
She later filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Bureau. "Kozlovska was convinced that the main motivation for turning her down was because she is Roma," Berzina said. "Witnesses said the employer took note of her dark clothing and the fact that she smelled of smoke. It is clear that the employer held negative stereotypes against Roma." She added that Kozlovska was fluent in Latvian, and although she spoke with an accent, this was no reason to deny her a job as a shop assistant.

Of all ethnic minorities living in Latvia, Berzina pointed out, the Roma suffer the worst discrimination.
For centuries this traditionally semi-nomadic group, originating from northern India, has had a strong presence in the Baltics. Both romanticized and ostracized in most European societies, the Roma continue to struggle with poverty, social integration and employment. Although there has been a growing effort by the EU and Latvian NGOs to help the Roma, crippling stereotypes still dominate society. This is precisely why the Jelgava court's decision carries such monumental importance, said Ilze Brands Kehris, director of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

"We've been waiting for this case for a long time," she stated. "And I'm extremely happy that it involves the Roma, because they're clearly the most vulnerable group that we have , suffering not only prejudice and racism but de facto discrimination with employment."
The most serious problem, said Brands Kehris, is that Latvian society overtly denies this discrimination. "Winning this case is important as a signal to society and employers 's that there actually are real consequences, that they can't ignore our discrimination laws," she said.

Since Latvia regained its independence in 1991, only six cases of discrimination have been filed 's a number that is shockingly low. According to Berzina, this is mostly due to a lack of trust in Latvia's judicial system. "People are afraid to litigate. Not only are most unaware of their rights, but they don't believe they will win in court. They think it will be a waste of money in the end," the lawyer said. But things are gradually changing, mostly thanks to EU support. Latvia's Human Rights Office has already developed a number of projects aimed at informing society of their legal rights, among other initiatives.
"One of our newest policies is that, in cases of ethnic discrimination, our lawyers will represent clients for free," said Berzina. "Latvians simply can't afford lawyer and court fees, so this will help encourage them to take action."
Brands Kehris agrees. With Latvia's strengthening support system, she says, ethnic minorities are gaining the confidence to stand up for themselves in court. "I think it's wonderful that we finally have an example of case law that we can use to encourage people to stand up for their rights," she said. "Now it's just a question of what will happen next."