This morning I stared at the front page of Népszava, not quite believing my eyes. Hungary, it seems, is introducing its own draconian version of "from welfare to workfare." After 90 days of unemployment insurance, all assistance will come to a screeching halt. If the unemployed person can't find a job during those 90 days, he will have to enroll in public works programs which might be anywhere in the country and work on some large public projects, like building football stadiums or dams and cleaning sewers. The work will be done under police supervision. According to reports, the average person will work only half time for less money than the minimum wage. If a person must spend more than six hours a day travelling in order to reach his workplace, he can stay in one of the trailers that will be set up at the site.
The work offered will be manual. The heavy construction work on a stadium, for example, could be much more efficiently done by heavy machinery, but that would defeat the government's purpose. So, basically these people will be hired for the sake of padding the employment statistics. After all, the added value of their work will be practically zero. In order to make the statistics even more attractive, most of these people will work only four hours a day. Thus, some of the unskilled workers who had been on welfare until now will receive, according to one source, as little as 15,600 forints (about $82) a month.
According to the article, the number of policemen employed, presumably to keep these people on the job, is staggering. 1,300 policemen who were forced to return from retirement will supervise 4,000 forced laborers. Apparently the state is planning to build large reservoirs that will need 8,000 workers who will be looked after by 2,500 policemen. On the reinforcing of a 120 km-long dam along the Tisza River there will be 6,500 workers and 1,200 policemen.
Well, I was gasping. Since Népszava didn't give a source I started looking elsewhere. I found the answer in Népszabadság. The information originally came from the web site of a new organization of retired policeman called Szolgálat és Becsület Érdekvédelmi Mozgalom (Advocacy Movement of Service and Honor). The original article appeared a good two weeks ago, on June 10, but this group that has about 200 fans on Facebook not surprisingly didn't attract the attention of the media. When I saw the date of this original article and learned that the government had approved a program called Magyar Munka Terv (Hungarian Work Plan) in order to create 1 million jobs in 10 years at the end of May, I started to give credence to the information the retired policemen provided.
There were other telling signs that something like this might be under consideration, although who in his wildest imagination could have thought of labor camps supervised by the police? For example, one couldn't quite understand why the public works program was brought under the supervision of the minister of interior whose main job until now was dealing with the law enforcement agencies. Sándor Pintér, the minister, while negotiating with the trade unions did mention something about retired policemen supervising workers on public work projects. Suddenly, recalling retired policemen also makes sense. Then there is an agreement Viktor Orbán signed with Florián Farkas (Fidesz), the current leader of the Roma community, about the creation of 100,000 jobs next year for the Roma. At the time I just laughed. Yes, yes, by next year 100,000 jobs for the Roma! What a huge fib. But now everything is becoming clear.
Népszabadság expressed their suspicion that "the main target" of this program are the Roma. Dóra Ónody-Molnár, the author of the article, came to the conclusion that "the goal is no longer to get these people back to the marketplace." The new government gave up on educating these people or teaching them new skills. They will shovel dirt for a few years on various public works projects. The former government's program was called "Út a munkához" (The Road to Work), but clearly the Fidesz program doesn't contain any illusion of these people ever getting a decent job on their own.
We also learned just today that the country's labor laws will be changed as well. They must be changed because it looks as if the people working on these projects will be on a different wage scale from the rest of society. The current minimum wage is 78,000 forints, but Pintér suggests that they will receive a sum equal to the amount of assistance they would have received if they had been on welfare (28,500 forints). Those who are actively looking for a job currently receive 46,800 forints. These people will not be able to get more than what they received in the form of assistance.
I couldn't quite believe that the government could introduce something that so closely resembles forced labor camps or forced labor battalions of Jews and other undesirables in World War II. So, I waited for a government response denying all this as a vicious lie of the liberals, socialists, communists, take your pick. But silence all day long. Then at 3:30 p.m. Pintér announced at a press conference that "we don't want to keep the workers under surveillance. …We are talking about instruction, direction, organization. Placing 300,000 people into work projects is a complicated affair that needs exactly the skills policemen have." So, this is all true.
Who knows what the newly reconstructed constitutional court will think of this latest brainstorm of Viktor Orbán and his team, but since the government is currently working on changing the labor laws it is very possible that employment at public works projects will simply be taken out of the Labor Code. Anything is possible. We are getting used to the idea that something that was unimaginable yesterday becomes reality today.