A couple of weeks ago Hungary’s National Association of Employers and Manufacturers (Munkaadók és Gyáriparosok Országos Szövetsége/MGYOSZ) sounded the alarm about the acute labor shortage in the country. If the government, which is currently busy turning the population against “economic migrants,” does nothing, the country’s economy will be in big trouble. Even now, it is almost impossible to find skilled blue-collar workers and qualified white-collar employees.
The Orbán government’s response was indicative of the total confusion that must reign within Fidesz and the administration in general. It seems that politicians like János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, are restrained by the ideological straitjacket imposed by the all-powerful prime minister. The official line is that Hungary doesn’t need immigrants, that the devastating demographic figures can be improved by a higher birthrate. But, as is becoming patently obvious, Hungarian men and women are not in the mood to have larger families. And even if they were, it would not make any difference for another two decades. This attitude of “we are going to deal with the problem ourselves” is now coupled with a vicious anti-refugee campaign. It was inevitable that Lázár would have to toe the party line even though he undoubtedly understands that without immigration the situation will only worsen. Mihály Varga, minister of economics, who is less of a party politician, reacted to MGYOSZ’s cry for help with some sympathy. The result was the confused message typical of this government.
The labor shortage, caused by the low birthrate, is aggravated by the massive exodus of Hungarians, which has been going on for years. According to the latest figures, only last year close to 50,000 people left to find a better life elsewhere.
A recent study by the staff of the International Monetary Fund addresses the economic impact of this emigration. Although the IMF study is titled “Emigration and its Economic Impact on Eastern Europe,” the paper covers Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe (CESEE ). The numbers are staggering. In the last 25 years approximately 20 million people left this region and moved to better-off areas of the European Union. Many of the emigrants are well educated and young, and their exodus accelerates the adverse demographic trends. East Europeans moving westward “benefited the receiving countries in the European Union and, therefore, the EU as a whole.” The study views this “migration … as an indicator of success of the EU project, which sees freedom of movement as necessary for achieving greater economic integration, and ultimately, higher incomes.” But migration had a negative impact on the “sending countries” where it “slowed per capita convergence, reduced competitiveness and increased the size of government.” Apparently, the situation is worst in the Baltic countries and in Southeastern Europe, i.e. the Balkans.
So, Hungary is not in the worst shape, but in comparison to earlier years the current situation is different in two important ways. First of all, the number of people who get on a plane to seek their fortune elsewhere has been growing rapidly. Here are a few numbers. Just in one year, during 2015, the number of Hungarians living in other EU countries grew by 15%. Since 2010 the number of Hungarians living in Norway has tripled, in Germany it has doubled. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom, where the number of Hungarians is very high, didn’t report its statistics to Eurostat. According to Eurostat, in 2015 563,00 Hungarian citizens lived outside of Hungary as opposed to 108,000 in 2010. Add to that the estimated 200-300,000 Hungarians in the U.K. and those in Austria, a country that still hasn’t reported, and the picture is even grimmer.
Another difference between those who are now looking for jobs abroad and those who left a few years ago is that the earlier emigrants, at least initially, were not planning to live outside of Hungary permanently. They were thinking of a temporary stay, just long enough to save some money to start a business, buy an apartment in Hungary, or pay off their Swiss-franc loan or perhaps long enough to perfect their German or English. All that has changed. People today who are seeking jobs abroad plan to become permanent residents.
Several employment agencies in Hungary cater to those looking for jobs abroad. One of them, Euwork, specializes in healthcare but has job opportunities for unskilled workers as well. The agency told HVG back in April that a member of Euwork’s staff will ask applicants at their interview why they want to leave. Nowadays, the most frequent answer is that the Hungarian situation is “hopeless.” It is hopeless not just because their own career seems to be going nowhere but also because they think the country itself is going to the dogs. They don’t believe there will be any change for the better in the near future. These applicants increasingly complain about the general state of affairs and politics. They don’t necessarily limit their complaints to the government or Fidesz but talk about the political situation in general. These people, even if they don’t speak the language well and know relatively little about the country where they are heading, plan to stay there permanently. Apparently western companies welcome these determined immigrants because they are more eager to fit in and will more readily integrate.
Randstad, an American employment agency with an office in Hungary, conducted a survey recently on Hungarian young men’s willingness to go abroad for a good job. The findings were astounding. Eight out of ten men under the age of 34 would pack up and leave for employment opportunities abroad. Instrum Justitia, an organization studying the state of the consumer industry, reported that most young parents (between the ages of 20 and 25) are in serious financial trouble. Only 25% of these families can pay their bills on time. So it is not surprising that 44% of them have already contemplated emigration, which is much higher than the average of 35%.
The trend will continue and the gaping differences in living standards between East and West will not be narrowed any time soon. Unfortunately, in the last 25 years Hungary’s economy has stagnated. Or, to be more precise, after a few years of economic growth, bad government policies caused a relapse, followed by some improvement, which was soon enough killed by the next administration. The latest such setback occurred after 2010 when the new Fidesz government’s policies tossed the country into recession, wiping out the heroic efforts of the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments, which had succeeded in putting the country’s economic house in order, surviving a worldwide recession, reducing the deficit, and achieving modest economic growth by 2010.
Current government propaganda may laud its great achievements, but the numbers don’t lie. Under the present circumstances more and more people will pack up and leave for places with greater opportunities. The country where they settle will benefit from their presence and so will the immigrants themselves, who make double or triple what they could in Hungary.
As for Hungary’s labor shortage, for the time being the Hungarian government isn’t worrying about it. But let’s assume the Orbán government changes its mind and recruits workers from, let’s say, the Balkan countries. Will these people stay in Hungary? I’m afraid the future is bleak in this respect.