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Labor migration: Hungarian misfortune or a globally accepted alternative by most nations?

Hungary Today 2014.10.18.

It has been a popular communication gag regurgitated by opposition political parties in Hungary that cross-border labor migration, a modern-age brain drain and skilled labor loss can be attributed solely to mistaken economic policies, an elitist and socially insensitive government disposition and poor wage rates. Blaming the government for excess labor migration flocking out of the country has become a popular campaign theme repeated by opposition candidates who otherwise have had a rather shallow political program to display during the 3-tiered election cycle in 2014 (national, EU and municipal elections). To call attention to this issue, some of them actually resorted to satirical humor alleging that they would like to congratulate the Orban government for living up to its campaign promise of creating 1 million new jobs for Hungarians… in England.

However, there is an old English saying that „facts are stubborn things”. Hence the study of SEEMIG (Managing Migration and its effects in South-East Europe), which has recently published migration statistics collected by the Central Statistical Office (KSH) in Hungary. According to this survey, only about 350 thousand migrant workers live abroad who left Hungary since 1989 (roughly 3,5 percent of the population), which is actually a lot less than the opposition likes to project. A less attractive statistic, however, is that nearly 4/5th of those who left the country after 2009, are young people. That is indeed troubling since it indicates that college-age youth often see limited opportunities in the Hungarian job market in the short run. Therefore, this is an issue that requires attention and government programs need to be instituted in an attempt to reverse this trend.

On the other hand, international statistics and surveys show that migration is not a unique Hungarian problem, but rather a widespread global phenomenon. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) published results of a survey recently, which showed that most of those asked expressed an interest in moving abroad and finding employment in another country. Surprising data were attached, however, demonstrating that 75 percent of Swiss citizens who were surveyed expressed an interest in taking on foreign employment opportunities, while 80 percent of those surveyed in Austria stated the same. The highest such percentage was recorded in the Netherlands where 90 percent of the people surveyed said that they would be interested in working in another country.

Of the destination countries that would-be migrants named, the United States continued to be the top country for all respondents (42 percent of those asked named the United States as their preferred alternative), while two other anglo-saxon countries, Great Britain and Canada followed, with 37 and 35 percent, respectively. Germany was also listed by many as a country of choice.

Statistics showing the number of migrant workers from other countries are difficult to ascertain, but the U.S. Department of State recently estimated that approximately 4 to 6 million Americans live and work abroad (not including the military, of course). That is also a fairly high number, even when we compare these estimates to the Hungarian statistics. While Hungary „has lost” 3,5 percent of its labor force during the past 20 years or so, the United States (if we use the 6 million figure) also lost nearly 2 percent of its active work force. The reason that this may not be a significant blow to the American labor market is that during the past 20 years, more than 40 million immigrants entered the United States, which more than replenished that loss. However, this also reiterates that labor migration is a global phenomenon.

What can be deduced from this new survey are the following: (1) labor migration is a global issue that perhaps requires a globally coordinated response; (2) it is widespread not only in underdeveloped or developing countries, but in many leading economically developed countries; and (3) it is a natural and widely accepted side-effect of free trade in a borderless world, in which regional integration and cross-border migration has been commonplace.

Ádám Topolánszky