The Bridge programme

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Ethnic minorities

  • Business creation
  • Deprived areas
  • Environment
  • Job support for disadvantaged groups
  • New sources of jobs
  • Social economy
  • Tailored training

A foundation is helping Roma people in Hungary to gain craft skills and set up social enterprises

Crafting a new start

The Bridge programme, run by Hungary’s Autonómia Foundation, has trained members of the unemployed Roma population in a range of construction crafts. These skills, honed in the renovation of local housing, have formed the basis of a social enterprise with an independent business future.

Hungary’s Aggteleki mountains, just inside the country’s northern border with Slovakia, combine scenic beauty with economic hardship. Thanks to its lignite deposits, Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County has also been Hungary’s main coal mining area. But thanks to the decline of the coal and steel industries, unemployment is now severe – around 23%. The urban areas around Ózd and Miskolc have caught the headlines, but times have often been harder in the surrounding countryside: those who had the opportunity to get a job in town have moved away, leaving a predominantly unskilled population in place. For example the village of Perkupa, north of Miskolc, has a population of 1,000, of whom 14% are Roma. They are largely unqualified, and in 2005 only 4% were officially in work. The majority survive through informal economic activity such as casual labouring in Budapest.

The history of self-help in the area goes back to 1998, when the Roma community established Bódva-völgyi Cigányok és Hátrányos Helyzetűek Érdekvédelmi Szervezete (the Advocacy Organisation of Roma and other Disadvantaged People in the Bodva Valley). The association started its first economic project in 2000, carrying out forestry work with two chain saws and a tractor. In the next year, ten of the members set up a co-operative piggery on land provided by the municipality and with the help of a livestock breeding grant. The organisation also carried out a range of jobs such as railway construction and roof repair as a contractor to the municipality. This provided some 25 jobs, although at a low level of income and with an informal style of working. However in 2004 this informality proved to be an Achilles heel when the organisation fell foul of the taxation authorities for non-payment of VAT. Unable to make up the arrears, the business was wound up.

New skills for a new start

In the spring of 2005, a new organisation was set up within the Bridge EQUAL project, involving some of the members from the former organisation. BRIDGE stands for Borsodi Romák Innovatív Társadalmi és Gazdaságfejlesztési Programja (Innovative Social and Economic Development Programme of the Roma of Borsod County). The partners are the Budapest-based Autonómia Alapítvány (Autonomy Foundation), three Roma organisations (the Bodva Valley Advocacy Organisation together with the Méra and Szalaszend branches of the Lungo Drom National Roma Advocacy and Civil Association) together with Andrássy Gyula Műszaki Középiskola, the region’s technical college.

This project was able to build on foundations that had previously been laid. In the first round of EQUAL, eight people had been trained as employment mediators and were employed for a year to establish an effective liaison between the local employment offices, employers, entrepreneurs and Roma communities. In addition, Roma organisations were trained in project planning and management and in maximising the use of their internal resources. The necessary confidence and management capacity were therefore in place. The project had three aspects: it combined skills upgrading with employment creation and environmental improvement. It trained 50 local people in masonry, carpentry and blacksmithing, then put them to work to renovate the local housing stock by installing heat insulation and energy-efficient heating systems.

Drawing on the local metallurgical tradition, it also established a smithy, which not only provides training facilities but also forms the base of a successful business manufacturing wood-burning stoves and other traditional forged items. Wood-burning stoves offer an opportunity to build a sustainable business. Though they have always been popular, recent rises in gas prices have stoked demand. Sales have been good at local markets, and they are now being marketed further afield.

A third strand of activity, the collection, cultivation and drying of herbs, aims to build an existing small-scale activity into a viable business.

Social enterprise

Trainees had the opportunity to set up their own business, and a micro-credit facility was made available. The primary organisational form adopted has however been the social enterprise. Such businesses have multiple bottom lines. On top of their business goals, they have explicit social aims such as creating jobs for excluded groups, providing training and upgrading social services. They reinvest their profit in the future of the enterprise and in benefits to the employees and the community.

Following their 7-11 month courses – during which they were paid the national minimum wage – practically all the trainees have found continued work in various construction crafts: as masons, carpenters, stove makers, smiths and woodwork machine operators. Practising a craft in the woodworking factory or blacksmith’s shop created by the project gives the trainees a formal income and provides them with the skills they need to obtain a job with an external company or in the social economy – or to start a business themselves. Working in the social enterprise brings them the sort of entrepreneurial skills, knowledge and networks they would find it hard to learn elsewhere.

"There is a gradual evolution taking place and we are generating a Roma middle class out of nothing,” says Tibor Ruszó, who leads the Advocacy Organisation of Roma and other Disadvantaged People in the Bodva Valley. “The basic motivation of people involved in this project is excellent and when others see what we have achieved, they will begin to think 'if they can do it why can't I?' and that might inspire them to have a try.”

Contact: Lukács György Project Manager Autonómia Foundation H-1137 Budapest, Pozsonyi út 14. II/9 Hungary

Tel: (+36 1) 237-6020 Fax: (+36 1) 237-6029