- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly warned that an influx of refugees threatens his country — but apparently Hungary’s businesses could actually use an injection of newcomers. According to Economic Minister Mihaly Varga, Hungary is facing an urgent labor shortage, with about 50,000 empty jobs that need to be filled.
And state officials are happy to welcome foreign workers to fill those roles — with only one small caveat: They should have a similar “cultural and historical” background to Hungarians, Varga told Hungarian newspaper Heti Valasz.
The remarks read like a thinly-veiled code for “non-Muslim.” If looking for labor, Hungary might have turned to the hundreds of thousands of desperate asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who turned up on the border last year — especially the 177,130 people who officially applied for asylum. Instead, many of them were greeted with water cannons, tear gas, and a razor wire fence.
In fact, Orban, riding a wave of popular support, has doubled down on his anti-refugee stance, refusing to comply with EU refugee quota guidelines and drawing criticism from NGOs, the U.N., and other European governments. In July, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch slammed Hungary for “breaking all the rules for asylum seekers.” Earlier this year the European Commission threatened to fine member countries like Hungary who don’t step up to help with a fair share of the refugee influx.
Next month Hungarians will vote in a referendum on whether or not to follow the EU’s rules and allow any more refugees to resettle in the country—and it’s looking like anti-immigrant sentiment is winning.
Yet, for foreign investors, doing business in Hungary is looking a lot less attractive these days. There are job openings across many industries, including the always in-demand IT and technology sectors, as well as the manufacturing and restaurant industries.
“Right now in many places there is a shortage, not just of those with specific skills, like welders, or machinists, chefs or waiters, but also semi-skilled workers who are on production lines and who over time can be trained to increase their skills,” the vice president of a Hungarian manufacturing association told EuroNews in July.
Even McDonald’s is having trouble hiring. Usually known for bottom-of-the-barrel wages, it recently rolled out a generous incentive package in Hungary that includes free housing and perks to entice workers.
Hungary’s paradox is a familiar game of hot and cold that plays out around the world: sometimes, countries that vehemently eschew immigration actually have a structural, economic need for newcomers willing to work for low wages.
France and Spain have been dealing with a similar backlash against Muslim immigrants after supporting a guest worker program for decades that imported North Africans to work seasonally in agriculture. The U.S. has gone through multiple waves of anti-immigrant sentiment against Mexicans, even though Mexican immigrants were once welcomed to fill needed jobs through the Bracero program, and still are an important source of labor in the the U.S. economy.
Hungary has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, according to the World Bank. It also has some of the lowest incomes in the EU.
So while the Hungarian economic minister might hope to draw workers from neighboring countries with similar backgrounds, it’s unlikely to be a very attractive option economically. In fact, it’s not just Hungary that’s facing a labor drought — other Eastern European nations have the same problem.
The reason? Many of their own more get-up-and-go citizens have gotten-up-and-gone, taking advantage of the EU’s freedom of movement to search for better wages and a higher standard of living. According to the country’s statistics agency, at least 420,000 Hungarians were working abroad in 2014 and the number has likely risen since then.
At least one European leader thinks that Hungarians shouldn’t reap the travel benefits that come along with EU membership so long as the Hungarian government refuses to help with its share of the migrant crisis.
In an interview with German daily Die Welt earlier this week, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn pointedly recommended that Hungary “should be excluded temporarily, or if necessary, forever from the EU.”
“Hungary is not far away from issuing orders to open fire on refugees,” he said.
Photo credit: DAN KITWOOD/Getty Images)