Arab Today, arab today orban trumpets harsh hungarian \workfare\ scheme
Last Updated : GMT 08:53:10
Arab Today, arab today
Arab Today, arab today

Orban trumpets harsh Hungarian \'workfare\' scheme

Arab Today, arab today

Arab Today, arab today Orban trumpets harsh Hungarian \'workfare\' scheme

Putnok - AFP

For Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary's rising employment rate is more evidence of his masterful economic stewardship and another reason to give him a new term in elections on April 6. Under his watch, the number of working Hungarians has soared to a two decade high. Inflation has also eased sharply and the economy is growing. But critics say the drastic improvement in employment numbers was driven by a harsh "workfare" scheme -- welfare in exchange for work -- that masks deeper problems. Before Orban won a landslide election victory in 10-million-strong Hungary in 2010, just 55 percent of the working-age population had a job, one of the worst rates in the European Union. But now, the rate is a much healthier 60 percent. "Who would have thought a few years ago that this would be a country of increasing employment," the right-wing Orban, 50, triumphantly declared in a recent speech on the campaign trail. "Well, while it's falling elsewhere in Europe, it's rising here in Hungary." Promising to create a million jobs in 10 years and a "work-based society", Orban cut the average benefit payment to around 25 percent below the minimum wage. He also slashed the amount of time people could claim benefits to three months from nine months -- the shortest in the EU -- and made continued assistance conditional on joining the workfare scheme. The scheme has put 200,000 people in casual work such as in hospitals and schools, cleaning streets or doing agricultural work. - Unorthodox but effective - In Putnok, a town of 8,000 people in Hungary's rundown northeastern former industrial and mining heartland, mayor Barnabas Tamas is chuffed. "Not since the change from communism have so many people been working here," a jovial Tamas, 61, mayor since 1994 and a member of Orban's party, told AFP in Putnok town hall. "Like many of the government's policies, it's unorthodox," he said. "But it works, anyone can get a job here if they want one." But economists say that Orban has done little to fix Hungary's underlying job market malaise. Around 60 percent of new jobs created in Hungary in 2013 are from the workfare scheme. Just 20 percent are private sector jobs, with the remainder in the public sector. "Orban's policies have not actually led to many new investors or open market jobs," said Adam Keszeg, a labour market analyst with Raiffeisen Bank. The opposition, which surveys indicate will have a tough time beating Orban next month, agrees. "He promised real jobs, but all we got is public works," Istvan Nyako from the Socialists told AFP while canvassing in Putnok market. "It gives poor people no choice, and mayors exploit it to get dirty work done on the cheap." A worker in the workfare scheme takes home 50,000 forints (160 euros, $200) per month, compared to the 67,000 forints minimum wage. Rights groups have also complained that the workers are not entitled to benefits like paid sick leave and holidays. "We work hard outside all day, clearing paths in winter, mending road surfaces in summer, all for a poverty wage," complains red-faced Laszlo Hajdu, 57, a heavy-set former miner, shovelling snow a few blocks from the mayor's office. But Zoltan Kovacs, state secretary at the Ministry of Human Resources, argued that public work is a temporary solution in unemployment blackspots. "The long-term aim is to get people -- many of whom have not worked for many years -- back into real work," he told AFP in his Budapest office. "If the economy grows then we can pay more," he says. "It's a philosophical shift, we want to get citizens active again, paying into the system and getting benefits in return".

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