UPDATE – 07/11/2011: Proposal now officially a law in Hungary. Scroll down for details.
We are continually behind. The news coming out of Hungary follow in such close succession that, just when we feel like we have caught our breath, just when it feels like the most recent shock has passed, just about when we are almost ready to formulate a response, right when pushing back is almost in sight, we must fight on yet another front. This is how we have grown accustomed to anti-semitism, racism, Nazism (proudly professed!); this is how the very real threat of banning abortions, the government’s suppression of media freedom, and a constitution, building-bridge from fledgling democracy to autocracy, went into effect without much notice. The campaign is far from over, however. The latest on the list: forced labor from the unemployed. No, this is not a joke, a bluff, or just a passing nightmare.
Forced labor camps can (and given the fact that the government has the majority vote in the legislature: will) become a reality by 2012. The government’s plan is to cap the amount of social benefits any one may receive in order to remove any currently existing incentive to voluntarily stay away from working. Those who remain unemployed, however, in the private sector that is, where there aren’t many jobs to be found, and which is not a situation under the government’s control (barring prudent economic policy-making, which does seem to be beyond their capacity) would have to join the ranks of those employed in public works – and “earn” their keep under labor conditions much worse than those guaranteed to other citizens.
The proposal goes on to specify that the public work projects would pay less than the minimum wage. This is because any compensation would still be earned as a social benefit received in the place of wages earned through employment (the Hungarian term is much more concise: bérpótló támogatás). It is not clear whether “unemployment” as such would become a thing of the past, or whether some persons, though only a very limited number, e.g. those who are disabled or who are verifiably sick for an extended period of time, could file for exceptions of the labor obligations and might continue to receive them.
What is for certain is that unemployment benefits, in the form in which they are known in other countries – as unemployment insurance which anyone who is out of work is eligible to collect – would cease to exist. The “work” (or the activity performed in exchange for social benefits, I should say) would be carried out under a special contract with the state. I have not yet seen any discussion of why this would not in fact serve as an incentive for employers in Hungary to court the Ministry of Interior, which is to administer this program, for access to their “public works” pool of laborers. In a country that has had its fair share of corruption scandals (Sándor Pintér, Minister of Interior, and, when not, wealthy entrepreneur, has also had his fair share of accusations to be cleared of by the courts, and who was personally entrusted by prime Minister Viktor Orbán to work out this plan), setting up a labor force which would constitute over 10% of the population and which would perform any task under market prices, without the opportunity to redress work-place grievance. Those working in these public projects would not only be without union representation, they would be supervised by the police during their “employment.” The government already entertains the idea of having “public laborers” work for non-profit or civil organizations and churches – and possibly allowing their employment to be utilized by for-profit corporations as well.
The public works system is quite heavily built toward the aim of forcing people to just about anything they would not otherwise want to do. Only those who participate in these public work projects, as determined by their contract with the state, under the conditions above described, would be compensated from the state’s resources as “unemployed.” The proposal specifies that public work could not be refused if the transportation to and from the workplace takes less than three hours (two for women raising children under the age of 10). The transportation would be paid by the government, and given that drawing up a container to sleep in is cheaper than a daily travel allowance (the container idea is not a figment of my imagination, it is the government’s description of the accommodation they would provide to their workers), the state could profit considerably by assigning its workers to projects away from their home. This is because, if the transportation takes longer than the maximum provided in the law, the workers would still not be permitted to refuse the “employment opportunity.” The government of course would have to provide the already mentioned containers. Exceptions sought from the policy, but in Hungary the merit of these exceptions is determined by local municipalities. Given the ethnic conflicts in several municipalities in east Hungary, this local administrative role might in fact be seen as an opportunity to local politicians to legally chase away Romas from their jurisdiction.
Recent stand-offs between neo-nazi paramilitaries and Romas seemed to have originated from the desire of the non-Roma population to intimidate the Romas into moving out of their village. The government’s public work proposal is going to make it possible for local governments to attain the same end without inviting the vigilantes to aid with their “Roma problem”. Mayors and local councils, who are elected by a simple majority, have the right to legislate limiting conditions on their resident’s eligibility for social benefits. Their abuse of this privilege is already under examination by the Constitutional Court. According to a report on 6/12/2011 in Nepszabadsag, the socialist daily, in one extreme example eligibility for social benefits (such as, for example, child support) was tied to the following conditions: at least six square-meters of living space per person had to be available in the place of residence in which the recipient resides; living rooms, washing rooms and bathrooms had to be used functionally; all residents in the recipient’s place of residence had to attend to personal hygiene regularly; and their clothes, as well as the place in which these clothes are stored, had to be clean. The municipality of course reserved the right to ascertain compliance with these requirements.
Of course we do not know whether people could be forced into employment under these sub-standard conditions through the draconian measures spelled out in the proposal – according to experts of labor economics and sociology, this is about the worst way one can go about solving this problem. But legislation proceeds through the Hungarian parliament faster than lightning: the debate of the new constitution, which, according to latest polls, 60% of the population considers to be worse than the constitution it is to replace, was passed only after a few weeks of debate in the Parliament.
The government has already recalled retired policemen to assist with the program. The surprising role of the Minister of the Interior (i.e. the Hungarian police chief) in setting up this program indicates a shift of emphasis in Hungary’s new approach to one of its gravest problem, unemployment. A problem that used to be conceived within the framework of social policy, given the mixture of administrative and forceful means of compulsion available to the police, now focuses solely on making people employable. While for any other state the problem is structural, according to the Hungarian government, their “people” need to be changed: their unwillingness to work has to be disabled – and the best means to do so is by taking away standard protections of workers as well as fair compensation for their work.
This idea that the problem of unemployment is quite plainly just a problem of people not being willing to work is not the only reminder of far-right influence in the proposal. The proposed plan is ripe with references to the demagogy of the far-right Jobbik party. “Public order” is their rallying cry: what the well-tuned Hungarian ear hears behind it is the reference to the so-called Roma problem, or, as it is called in Hungary, the problem of “Roma criminality.” Under assault by the recent surge in neo-Nazi activity, stereotypes of this ethnic minority, widely accepted by the rest of the Hungarian population, are unwilling to work, provide for their needs by petty crime, and receive large qualities in state support. The Neo-Nazis, who also voice their concern about the reproductive rate of this ethnic minority(!) charge that they do this intentionally, in order to obtain an income from child-support which would free them from the need to go to work.
It is in this respect, as a way of intervening in the far-rights harassment of the Roma – which had already almost got out of control of the state police – that the Hungarina government is sending a strong message with this proposal.
Rather than stemming the gains of the far-right, voters increasingly radicalized and demanding of more and more atrocious crimes against their fellow citizens, prime minister Viktor Orbán is playing to racial hatred and weakens the already fading sense of sociality in the Hungarian people. The government, which thus far was standing aside when they were called upon to protect the Romas from the atrocities of skinheads patrolling their villages day and night with axes and baseball bats, has now officially embraced their caause. The casualties in this game, however, this time around, are not only the Romas, but over ten percent of the population who have already fallen behind the rest of the country and whose poverty reaches third world levels. Only in the isolated and increasingly demented world of Hungarian politics would the state lower itself to the company of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia to not only compel by force those already down on their luck, but to make it a point to exploit and further humiliate them in the name of “public order.”
UPDATE – 07/11/2011: The public works legislation has now officially been passed by the Hungarian Parliament (just as a side note on how speedy a process this is nowadays: the proposal was made public until 06/10/2011 – 31 days ago).
The legislation confirms the following details: The maximum duration of unemployment compensation is now capped at three months. Beyond that time period, only those who are willing to perform public works are entitled to compensation in the system I detail above. Those is the program might be requested to work for private companies. About the kind of works that are envisioned for them: “In Hungary, dams are drawn up, canals are cleaned and reservoirs are built not by 21st century technology, but by public work,” said Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister. About the “penalties” of refusing to become a participant in the public works program: not only unemployment benefits, but any other social benefits form the state may be discontinued (e.g. child support). What is more, receiving state support can be tied to the “tidiness” of one’s living quarters. No person may receive more than 90% of what s/he could earn in a public work project in social benefits from the state.