The EESC issues between 160 and 190 opinions and information reports a year.
It also organises several annual initiatives and events with a focus on civil society and citizens’ participation such as the Civil Society Prize, the Civil Society Days, the Your Europe, Your Say youth plenary and the ECI Day.
The EESC brings together representatives from all areas of organised civil society, who give their independent advice on EU policies and legislation. The EESC's326 Members are organised into three groups: Employers, Workers and Various Interests.
The EESC has six sections, specialising in concrete topics of relevance to the citizens of the European Union, ranging from social to economic affairs, energy, environment, external relations or the internal market.
In June, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing focusing on combating discrimination in the employment and recruitment of Roma, which revealed that the current strategies for fostering their inclusion in the labour market were largely failing.
Only 25% of Roma older than 16 were in paid work in 2016, whereas as many as 63% of young Roma aged between 16 and 24 were neither in employment nor in education.
The hearing "Countering discrimination in Roma employment and recruitment", organised by the EESC Study Group on the Inclusion of Roma, disclosed that the situation of Roma women was even worse, as their labour market participation rate further dropped between 2011 and 2016 in many Member States, falling to as low as 16%.
The figures are based on the Roma Survey from 2011 and EU MIDIS II from 2016, which took account of the situation in the EU countries with a significant Roma population, such as, among others, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Spain and Greece.
At the hearing, the figures were presented by Grigorios Tsioukas of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). Other participants in the hearing included EESC members and representatives of the European Roma Rights Centre, the Ergo Network, the Open Society Institute and the Fundación Secretariado Gitano of Spain.
Roma people face more discrimination when looking for work, whereas once they are employed, they feel less discriminated against, Mr Tsioukas said. There is structural anti-gypsyism in European society. If you are looking for work, being a Roma is a major disadvantage
Current public works schemes, which were designed help activate the unemployed in the Member States, were not always yielding the expected results.
In Hungary, for example, the inclusion of the Roma in a public works programme of this type was leading to the Roma people being employed in extremely humiliating conditions rather than to their proper inclusion in the labour market, warned Bernard Rorke of the European Roma Rights Centre.
The programme provided lower income than minimum income schemes, which only added to the poverty of the Roma population, who accounted for 76% of the poor in Hungary.
On top of this, the central authorities often had no overview of how these programmes were implemented locally, which could lead to arbitrary decisions by local mayors who may even use the programme to coerce people into providing political support, for example by threatening to withdraw users' benefits if they did not get their vote in the elections.
As for the Commission's Youth Guarantee scheme, it was not reaching the young Roma to the desired extent due to overly complicated and cumbersome registration procedures that left the potential beneficiaries struggling to access the services on offer, said Carmen Tanasie of Ergo – European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network.
Many potential beneficiaries had no idea they could even benefit from this scheme or else they lived in rural areas and had no use for it at all, she added.
The participants stressed the importance of education as it brought better prospects for work, and the chances of finding work were almost twice higher for Roma who had completed at least upper secondary education, in comparison to those with only a basic education.
They also harshly criticised the lowering of the compulsory schooling age to 16.
Young Roma will leave school with no skills, will be drawn to a public work scheme without any prospect of entering the labour market and the cycle of poverty will continue, Mr Rorke said.
Ms Tanasie presented the results of a piece of research conducted by Ergo, which came up with several recommendations. These included the prevention of early school dropout of Roma youth, especially of girls; investing in fighting structural anti-gypsyism in schools and society; training of employers to fight anti-gypsyism; investing in quality education that matches labour market needs; supporting entrepreneurship and providing high-level jobs in the public sector for highly educated Roma.
Despite the bleak statistics, there were some good practices in the EU. One such example was "Acceder", a programme funded through the European Social Fund and run by the Fundacion Secretariado Gitano in Spain.
Starting as a very small, regionally focused project, "Acceder" had developed into a national labour market intermediation programme supporting the recruitment and employment of Roma. "Acceder" sought to enhance their basic skills and professional qualifications and raised awareness of widespread prejudice against them.
We have to work on a cycle of barriers faced by the Roma who want to enter the labour market, and those include discrimination, training, experience, references, information and motivation. We develop personalised pathways for inclusion in working life and solutions tailored to each person and context, said Rafael Saavedra.
The Ergo Network had recently published the top ten best practices of Roma youth employment in five EU countries in Eastern Europe, which had shown that there were employment measures that worked for Roma. Most of these measures included support processes before entering the labour market or created self-employment opportunities for Roma.
Among the top ten was the programme "Bridging Young Roma and Business", presented at the hearing by Dimitar Dimitrov of the Open Society Institute. This programme encouraged the inclusion of young educated Roma through employment in the private sector in Bulgaria and Hungary.
Concluding the event, EESC Member Ákos Topolánszky said: The discrimination of the Roma population in the labour market is systemic. We need more than programmes and framework strategies, we need systemic solutions and we need to change our way of thinking.
Otherwise, we will just have these heroic packages in this ocean of discrimination, he stressed.