In class about a month ago, we talked about the idea of requiring national service, or service in exchange for welfare payments. Both policies are commonly mentioned as possibilities in the U.S.
I mentioned briefly that I thought this violated the
- 13th Amendment’s ban on involuntary servitude (because you might be required to do work against your will), and
- 14th Amendment’s ban on unequal treatment (because you might be singled out to do work when others were not).
But, other countries aren’t bound by our laws.
So I also raised the point that local governments are currently doing just this in Hungary: forcing Roma (aka gypsies) to do work assigned by the government, coercively, and often in remote camps:
For the long-term unemployed – a disproportionate number of whom are Roma – this means taking part in the government's new public work programme. According to Jeno Setét, a Roma activist, between 70% and 80% of Hungary's Roma population do not work (the rate for the whole population is around 10%). This scheme aims to get 300,000 people into work by 2014 via a sort of community service scheme for which participants are paid less than the national monthly minimum wage (around 80,000 HUF – £214 – for unskilled workers) but slightly more than they would receive in benefits.
Anyone unemployed for 90 days is offered a place on the programme, which administers projects cleaning streets or sewers, cutting down trees or building football stadiums or dams. Refusal to accept a placement will result in all social security benefits being stopped to the refusenik and family. Gyöngyöspata was chosen last year to run a pilot scheme. Unemployed locals – almost exclusively Roma – were deployed to cut down trees in a nearby wood.
For Setét, the public work scheme is a "smokescreen" that will do little to help Roma get "real" jobs and will reinforce their position at the bottom of Hungarian society. "If people on the scheme were paid properly and trained properly, I'd be all for it," he added. "But they are not. Right now it's a way of humiliating people and paying them a slave wage."
The most controversial aspect of the programme is the introduction of what Roma activists call "labour camps". If there is no suitable project near enough for someone to commute to, they will be offered "accommodation" near or on site, said Kovács. "They are not labour camps," he said. But to the Hungarian Roma, many of whose relatives perished the last time they were sent off to "labour camps", during the Nazi era, the merest whiff of anything similar is spine-chilling, said Gábor Sárközi from the Roma Press Centre: "People are absolutely terrified at the prospect."
You may read more about this in a piece entitled “Poor, abused and second-class: the Roma living in fear in Hungarian village” that appeared in the January 27 issue of the English newspaper The Guardian. This article also links to video of Hungarian paramilitaries wearing Nazi themed outfits.