“We would like to give them valuable and useful work,” said Károly Papp, undersecretary of Hungary’s Department of the Interior, the public officer in charge of Hungary’s public works program. “Workers are going to learn agriculture for a year, and animal-husbandry for another,” he added for clarification. As for the value they are to produce, it could not be more immediate: “after adequate training, the workers should be able to produce goods that may be used in feeding the local public.”
It is a returning theme in the Hungarian government’s most recent policy ideas that the most important skill of a 21st century worker is to be able to grow his or her food. Perhaps they are only trying to shield the average citizen from disappointment. There are many reasons why in theory a public works policy could lead to success: if the participants pick up marketable job skills and experience, if there is value added to the country’s economy and infrastructure, or if the experience is positive enough to restore the self-confidence of the unemployed.
None of these apply however to the new public works projects instituted since August 1 in Hungary. But nor is this your average governmental public works project. Forget the good old notion that public works provide an opportunity for the unemployed to return to work. Hungary’s improved version of the same idea makes work in the program mandatory. Those who refuse to participate become ineligible for social benefits (of any sort whatsoever) for up to a year. Those who are fired for providing sub-standard work become ineligible for social benefits for three years.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán put the Minister of the Interior, Sándor Pintér in charge of developing the details of this arrangement – certainly an unexpected choice for authoring unemployment policy (previously, public work projects were co-ordinated by the Ministry of the Nation’s Economy). Mr. Pintér in turn developed a proposal for paring down the country’s unemployment crisis with jobs that do not fall under the protection of the country’s employment laws. That is because the work performed in these programs is provided in exchange for benefits that the unemployed used to receive “for free.”
The unusual provisions of this type of labor include, for example, forcing public workers to move to live-in facilities set up by the work site if it is more than 3 hours of a daily commute from their residence. They might earn less than the country’s prevailing minimum wage in these jobs. Though only the Hungarian state and municipal councils could assign public workers to work projects, the proposal is open to “loaning out” these working unemployed to private companies. None of these appear to threaten with the potential for arbitrariness, corruption, or a downward plunge in the wages earned by the rest of the population, of course.
At first, the Hungarian government announced grandiose projects to be realized through public work. There has been talk of having 4000 unemployed build a soccer stadium in the northeastern city of Debrecen starting in October. These public workers would be housed in containers during the duration of the project and supervised by 1300 previously retired policemen. 8000 public workers would be assigned to build the Bereg water reservoir in Eastern Hungary, under the supervision of 2500 policemen. 6500 would be sent to maintain the 120 km (74.5 mile) bank of the Tisza river between the East-Hungarian cities of Szolnok and Csongrád, 1200 policemen would guard them and act as their foremen. 2200 public workers and 350 policemen would fortify a loess wall in Kulcs, 1800 public workers and 150 policemen the bank of the Danube in Budapest’s Római-part. Another 5500 public workers and 1400 policemen would be assigned to road and forestation projects elsewhere in the country.
There is no way to tell if these projects are still under planning. They most probably are, though the public work programs introduced on August 1 certainly appear to be less ambitious.
Not only is their stated goal – feeding the people, if we are to take Mr. Papp seriously – a much more modest aspiration compared to the second renaissance foreshadowed by the above list of infrastructure improvements (I have the highest hopes for the soccer stadium among them all – because trusting the structural safety of a stadium to the good-will of thousands of untrained bricklayers seething in anger over their exploitation is an especially promising idea). More importantly, this year’s public works programs would be capped at 7.5 billion Hungarian forints ($39.5 million), which is hardly enough for the planned extravaganza on the state’s dime.
In fact, since this cap had been imposed, news were received that Hungary’s economy did not grow at all during the last quarter, which – quite surprisingly, if you ask the Hungarian government – will force new austerity measures. I would not put it past this government to go ahead with these public work projects in spite of the country’s inability to meet its budgetary goals. The reality of Hungary’s public work projects, however, for now at least is much less spectacular.
In Gyöngyöspata, 40 workers are employed outside of the city limits on getting rid of the shrubbery on a hillside. They use sickles, scythes, axes and machetes to clear away the vegetation before the forestation of the hillside is to begin – if all goes according to plans, in the spring. One hand-held motorized grass trimmer is also in use to mark the perimeter of the area to be cleared by the end of the work-day. Some of the handles of the sickles in use are loose, but some are not. I am not sure if the skills learnt through this work project count as agricultural or whether they will contribute eventually to the feeding of the local population. But as far as the value of their work is concerned, as one of the work supervisors told the reporter of 168 óra, a Hungarian news magazine, “if this area belonged to the forest service, we would hire a subcontractor, who would be given a week to take care of the job. Evidently he would use machines, but that is not the point here.”
Every day, the workers clear away o.5 hectares (1.2 acres, or half of a 100 meter by 100 meter area). At this rate, the 68 hectares on the hillside would take 40 workers and their supervisors as many as 136 days to clear. To their credit, they typically exceed their daily goals. Evidently, using machines is not the point here.
The workers receive minimum wage for their work: a net compensation of 60,600 Hungarian forint each (222 euros, or $319) a month. For some, this is a considerable improvement over their previous public work assignment, in which they only received half as much for working a 4 hour shift. Others, however, are much less overwhelmed by the circumstances of their newfound employment. “We go to the bathroom in the bushes, every time you sit down you find yourself in the middle of an ant colony, and you would search in vain for shade on the hillside.” They do not yet know what is going to happen should the weather turn rainy and cold.
The program in Gyöngyöspata is admittedly a trial run for the later projects, and a future “model” for public works project throughout the country. Nobody in Hungary has any doubt that Gyöngyöspata was selected as the location for the project because of the events that made it famous during the spring of this year. Members of a far-right “civil guards organization” showed up there on March 1, 2011, because, as they put it, the Romas of the town posed a public safety threat which they sought to remedy in their vigilante fashion. Before long, Jobbik’s politicians descended on the town of 2,563, bringing at least 2000 supporters along. Uniformed paramilitaries – patrolling the streets with dogs, axes or whips in hand according to the eye-witnesses – remained in the town on and off until the ethnic conflict almost escalated into open violence in late April.
Since then, Gyöngyöspata elected Oszkár Juhász, Jobbik’s candidate its mayor in a special election. During the campaign, Juhász promoted a platform of “public safety” and “safety of possessions,” a thinly veiled reference that the leadership of the village must focus on the criminal acts committed by its Roma residents, many of whom are unemployed. To be sure, the police has record of 5 crimes committed in the town, but supporters of Jobbik say that this does not correspond to the actual crime rate. And at least 33.8% of Gyöngyöspata’s residents seem to agree (in fact, the two candidates of the far-right received 43.3% of the votes cast when combined).
What makes Jobbik’s electoral win in Gyöngyöspata so disquieting is that the residents of the town chose the far-right alternative only weeks after having witnessed the reality of living under the siege of the right-wing extremist militias. What makes it so troubling is that an ideology that holds an ethnic group collectively responsible for acts committed by individual members of the group has such a wide appeal in the mainstream population.
According to 168 Óra’s report “all,” according to other sources that visited the scene earlier, “most” of the public workers in Gyöngyöspata are Romas. The public workers says that the non-Roma unemployed of the village were all able to show documentation of their employment for precisely the time when the project began, and thus to maintain their eligibility for social benefits in spite of the fact that they did not show up for work on the hillside at the requested time.
Because the funds available for the projects is capped at 7.5 billion Hungarian forints, such inequality is going to become an essential feature of this system. Only a selected segment of Hungary’s unemployed is going to perform public work service. The 7.5 billion must cover the wages of the public workers, the wages of their supervisors, as well as the cost of tools and materials used in the project. The employment of 40 persons in Gyöngyöspata, for example, has a budget of 31 million HUF: 4 million for wages per months for four months and 15 million for the tools. (This means that with the expenditure needed to get the work project off the ground, the state in fact spends much more than the minimum wage – in this case about twice the minimum wage – in order to get the public worker to perform public work. On the other hand, the nation gains a hillside cleared of shrubbery, and obtains a hand-held motorized grass trimmer, several scythes, machetes, and sickles – with handles that may or may not be loose – beyond the moral victory of teaching its unemployed the value of hard work.)
Assuming a wage to equipment ratio similar to that budgeted for Gyöngyöspata, and assuming that each public worker works only for a month in these programs, the fund set aside for this year’s public work projects could require no more than 15,800 of Hungary’s unemployed to participate in a public work project. This would mean that only 1 out of every 12 of those currently receiving unemployment benefits from the Hungarian state would have to work in exchange for their unemployment benefits (there are approximately 182,000 persons eligible for jobless benefits in Hungary, as of June of 2011). Gyöngyöspata’s 40 public workers are scheduled for 4 months of public works – under these circumstances, only 9677 would be forced to earn its benefits: 1 in 19, in other words. The actual number is perhaps not as important as the overall point: the mandate to “earn one’s keep” is directed at a very small portion of the pool of unemployment recipients.
The Hungarian government’s plan therefore is to force less than 8.3% of those receiving unemployment benefits to perform menial work which in no way furthers their chances on the job market in exchange for their “unemployment” benefits. The rest of them remain free to use their unemployment aid for the original purpose for which social benefits were created in the first place: as a means of getting by while looking for other jobs or perhaps training for other sectors of the labor market. At the very least, this is a punitive measure targeting those handpicked for public labor. But even if the participants welcome their enlistment in the public work project, their participation is done at the cost of being unfairly disadvantaged when it comes to finding a long-term job above the minimum wage – especially in comparison with those who need not perform such services in exchange for their benefits. If only 1 out of 12 persons must build stadiums, and reservoirs, and roads, the 11 not bothered by such duties are free to apply for jobs, attend interviews and do their best to find an actual job.
It is unmistakeable how close the governing party, Fidesz, comes with this policy measure to its far-right rival, Jobbik. The notion that gypsies are to be punished en bloc for their “gypsy-criminality” is usually recognized as Jobbik’s platform. So is the rhetoric that Romas prefer to live off of social benefits and to avoid work at any cost – if possible, by having children so that they can all live on child support. It is clear that the government is now acting on these ideas, even if it does not say so explicitly. The idea that the government must act as an autocratic representative of law and order has already been a common feature shared by both of these parties. By instituting this program, however, Fidesz has managed to outdo Jobbik in its landmark “radicalism.”
Though there are reasonable expositions of the matter, such as a text posted on the government’s website, according to which “public works are employment programs that, by combining work and practical training, create the possibility of surmounting disadvantages facing employees, of augmenting the training levels of job seekers and their skill sets, and of receiving on-the-job experience,” these of course are just the facade of what is taking place in Hungary. A government source got closer to the truth when describing the government’s motives behind this atrocious policy in this way:
“A considerable fraction of the workers brought into the public work programs is not going to return to the primary labor market because they are untrained. It made no difference for them that they received job training from EU grants for the last 8 to 10 years; without centrally issued expectations, such governmental policy was an unequivocal failure. But they must be put to work, since it is not good for them mentally that they live off of benefits and seasonal off-the-books jobs; not to mention this induces serious social tensions… Of course we can count on significant conflicts, many will be dissatisfied, but Pintér [Hungary’s Minister of the Interior] will be able to handle that too.”