Sunday, April 22, 2012

Labor Camps In Hungary?

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.


  1. what about giving unemployed people courses in networking, marketable skills, and job finding. And when they show up to these courses,(once or twice a month) they are then qualified to receive welfare?

  2. Sorry Eric. You posted this after I stopped posting for the semester last year, and I missed it.

    I think there's a major and a minor issue with this. Neither of them kills the deal, but they're worth thinking about.

    The major issue is that I think it needs to be voluntary. In this way, a job can be viewed as a formalization of a reciprocal gift exchange. An employer volunteers a position to you. You respond by voluntarily showing up and doing the job. Your employer then volunteers to pay you. It may seem a little stilted, but it covers the 3 ways that you can be unemployed: there is no job, you do no work, or there is no money to pay you. So I think your suggestion is fine as along as it covers all three. I think the Hungarian policy fails along the second dimension.

    The minor issue is that your suggestion amounts to paying people to do things (networking, acquiring skills, and job search) that others pay for out of their own time and money. I don't think it's a dealbreaker, but I think to be fair a suggestion like yours should have a discussion about paying kids to go to school (and the like).