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Foreign Workers in Hungary: With Coronavirus Arriving, Most of Them Shown the Door

Ábrahám Vass 2020.04.08.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the Hungarian economy hard. Tens of thousands have lost their jobs, and the first ones were the foreign guest workers, as their contracts were easy to terminate.

Before the crisis, a large number of non-EU foreign workers had arrived to work across several Central European countries. Hungary was no exception, partly due to the high employment rates and labor shortages, a consequence of economic growth, and that many locals sought jobs elsewhere in hope of better salaries and prospects.

Reports put the number of guest workers employed in Hungary to around 70-80,000 in 2019. While according to business daily Világgazdaság, among non-EU workers in Hungary, most arrived from Ukraine (around 44,000), Serbs have the second-highest number of permits (6,199), followed by the Chinese with 2,965. There are 2,778 Vietnamese and 1,806 Indians in Hungary’s labor market.

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The sector exposed most for the need for foreign workers is the construction industry. According to Index, just ahead of the border closures, 15,000 guest workers in this sector, traveled home practically overnight, while older workers are rather reluctant due to the pandemic and material procurement for projects has also slowed down. In addition, many came from Serbia and Ukraine, having had difficulties returning home as their country at one point closed or temporarily closed their borders even to citizens.

The agricultural sector also receives many foreign workers, mostly from Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia. It’s not surprising then that Hungary is interested in bilateral agreements with neighboring countries to allow commuters passing through both ways (although only for those who work within the 30 kilometers from the borders). Having eased the situation of certain companies, it, of course, hasn’t resolved the entirety of the problem. Likewise, producers are also worried in the horticultural sector, as the peak season is about to kick-start but without enough manpower, with many laborers coming from neighboring countries.

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It is also true, that while from France for example, there are reports about those dismissed or on mandatory leave who are eager to find seasonal (mostly agricultural) jobs, this is not the case in Hungary, where certain legal conditions are still being adjusted. Attila Csorbai, Director of the Poultry Product Council, admitted to HVG that while currently there are no shortages in the supply, a significant portion of food products are produced in Csongrád, Bács-Kiskun, and Békés counties, where Serbian and Romanian workers were often employed, resulting in a temporal slow-down of the produce and price hikes.

Restrictions affect not only the Hungarian economy but the workers as well, whose livelihoods have also become dubious and endangered. A report from 24.hu revealed that although factual data is not yet available, homeless shelters receive more people than usual in this period of the year, probably due to many losing accommodations. Many Ukrainians and Romanians have reportedly turned up at these shelters. Some of these people are very defenseless as they need to earn for a whole family (especially in the case of those from Ukraine) living in their home countries. They have no savings, no flat, and are used to working day and night to support their relatives.

Hungary Today asked domestic recruitment company WHC about their experiences. The company said that while they can’t disclose data about their employees, they have helped many, mostly Ukrainian guest workers to be safe one way or another, and all of their workers who remain in Hungary have a place provided by the company, in which to live.

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The company is, however, rather optimistic about the future and expects a swift recovery and upswing in the market starting from June 2020. In their view, governmental measures should include the implementation of temporary wage subsidies. A way to go, for example, might be the introduction of the so-called ‘kurzarbeit’ (a term for ‘short work’ used in Germany and Austria) which the government has since announced to implement in Hungary as well.

In the featured photo: Ukrainian workers at the Záhony border station on their way home. Photo by Attila Balázs/MTI