Cooking in the Basement: The Invisibility of Romani Labor and the Profitable Discrimination

Cooking in the Basement: The Invisibility of Romani Labor and the Profitable Discrimination

Written by Salome Kokoladze

Labeling Romani people as lazy has been a part of the mainstream discourse in many countries. It is obvious who is getting harmed by the label, but does anyone benefit from it? While the stereotype could be a way for governments and privileged members of a society to avoid being responsible for the economic issues such as high unemployment rates among Romani communities, it is doing more than helping some “avoid” being responsible.

Let’s juxtapose the stereotype with the reality, where many organizations benefit from undocumented and non-contracted workers as well as from offering lower salaries to those who will have hard time finding justice and fighting for their employment rights. Undocumented workers can work for long hours for low wages, they can be denied being paid and because of the lack of documents, there will be no way for them to make demands. Non-contracted workers are in a similar condition. According to a report by the research consortium NEUJOBS,

a large share of the employment is driven out from formal to the informal labour, which involves low pay and the absence of any kind of job, health, pension or safety protection….This practice is significant in Hungary and Slovakia, where approximately one-fifth of working Roma are employed without any written contract, and thus lack any job and welfare security…They take on jobs as casual – and most typically non-contracted – workers in the agriculture and in constructions and in the subsidized labour market, which provides short term (1-3 moths) and often part time work and where the salaries do not reach 75% of the officially established minimum wage….The involvement of Roma population in the informal and irregular segment of the labour market contradicts the public perception of Roma, unwilling to work. The data suggest just the opposite: Roma are ready to take on jobs even if they are badly paid and insecure.[1]

The stereotype that Romani people are lazy helps ignore the fact that Romani individuals take a huge risk by engaging in a labor market that guarantees no protection and security for them. For example, one of the construction workers from Slovakia reported, “[w]hen I worked at road construction works in Banská Bystrica, there were 15 Roma and 10 ‘whites’. When it was necessary to dig a well, or go into a shaft, a white man would refuse and I would go and do the job. He would even then get better bonuses than me. Once, my bonus was lowered because I came two minutes later from a lunch break.”[2] We can see how at the expense of the minority employees’ toil, workers with a privileged ethnic background avoid doing the “dirty” or high-risk jobs as well as get higher remuneration. “Laziness” of Romani people in reality is a stereotype that helps the exploiters to cover-up their own laziness and injustice. It is exactly this “cover-up” that enables corporations and organizations that abuse the rights of non-contracted, undocumented or ethnically underprivileged workers to justify keeping a larger portion of profit for themselves.

© Romedia Foundation


According to ERRC research, “1 in 4 of those [Roma] who are, or have, been in employment reported that they received lesser terms and conditions of employment than non-Romani counterparts doing the same job.”[3] In addition, while one of the stereotypes is that Romani individuals are not skilled and educated enough to work, the research showed that “Roma with higher education can only get work in Roma-specific areas; otherwise they would probably be unemployed like most Roma.”[4] Romani individuals being in employment or searching for a job face discrimination at different levels. Likewise, even the contracted Romani workers do not get treated with respect and get the deserved remuneration. The labor rights abuses happen not only based on one’s class, but also based on one’s racial background. Capitalism not only feeds on low/middle class laborers, but it also benefits from racial, sexual or ethnic minorities’ exploitation, in short, from those who are not properly protected by their governments and the law.

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© Romedia Foundation

As a British performance artist, Akala, points out in this video by The Guardian, racism is a business. Negative stereotypes keep “the business” going by keeping the status quo of the marginalized individuals, so that they will have hard time expressing disagreement while lacking the necessary support system around them. Damian Le Bas also emphasizes in his article, “In All Toil There is Profit”, that “Europe has gotten rich by breaking the backs of Romani people who worked and worked for centuries, the problem being that they were neither paid, nor respected as humans….[I]n the toil of slavery there is indeed profit, it’s just that the profit doesn’t happen to go to the one who is toiling.”[5] Comparison with slavery is an important point here, because a slave is not only not remunerated for her/his toil, but in many cases, the importance of an individual’s existence as a human is erased along with this toil. The ERRC research mentions a case, when a Romani cook “was hired to work as a cook in a spa resort but there was an important condition the person in charge of recruitment imposed: I would be hired as a cook and perform my duties on the basement floor where I could not be seen by doctors and patients.”[6] This instance shows how the employer saw benefit in the toil of the Roma cook while also conforming to social expectations to make that toil invisible. Being forced to work in the basement is both a literal and a metaphorical representation of how one is made vulnerable by being pushed away from the public eye; it is a symbol of erasing the importance of one’s existence and one’s toil, which enables societies to label Romani people as “lazy” and at the same time, to feed on and flourish on the labor of the marginalized.



[1]Klara Brozovicova, Brian Fabo et al. “Overview of the Labour Market Situation of Low-educated and Roma Population and Regulations Affecting Their Employment.” Edited by Vera Messing. NEUJOBS, Nov. 2012. Web. 31-32.

[2]“The Glass Box: Exclusion of Roma from Employment.” European Roma Rights Center, February 2007. Web.

[3]Ann Hyde. “Systemic Exclusion of Roma from Employment.” European Roma Rights Center, March 31, 2006. Web.


[5]Damian Le Bas. “In All Toil There is Profit.” Romedia Foundation. December 27, 2013. Web.

[6]Ann Hyde. “Systemic Exclusion of Roma from Employment.” European Roma Rights Center, March 31, 2006. Web.