The European Commission said yesterday (20 September) it is unaware that local authorities in Hungary are putting Roma to work under programs reminiscent, according to the opposition, to labour camps under Nazi or Soviet domination.
A plan approved by the Hungarian Parliament in July requires anyone who receives a social allowance to work on construction sites, to clean the streets or maintain parks and forests. In the case of refusal, the allowances would be stopped. Some flexibility is envisaged with respect to elderly and sick people, as well as to single parents with children.
Some 300,000 people are expected to be working in "community services". Officially targeted toward the jobless, according to critics, the plan is ethnically motivated and directed toward the Roma population.
People under the programme are paid the equivalent of €200 a month, which is more than the basic social allowance, but less than the minimum wage.
A report on the Belgian RTBF television broadcast on 19 September has shown a number of Roma in the town of Gyöngyöspata clearing dead wood in a forest. Apparently, some thirty people had worked hard over several days for the same result a tractor could obtain in a few hours.
Bloomberg quoted Károly Lakatos, a 38-year-old father of three who was laid off earlier this year from his forklift-operator job in an auto parts factory, calling the work conditions "degrading".
Gyöngyöspata is governed by the far-right Jobbik party. A few months ago, dressed in black paramilitary uniforms, extremists of the so-called 'Hungarian Guard' marched through Gyöngyöspata, in an apparent effort to intimidate the Roma population. One of the Jobbik officials in the town was quoted as saying that the non-Roma population supported the measure, as thefts had decreased.
Hungary will no longer "give benefits to those capable of work, when there is much work to be done," the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in June.
The opposition Socialist Party says the program "is based on fear and force, just like in a previous era of terror"—an allusion to the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who were conscripted for Nazi and Soviet work camps, Bloomberg reported.
Asked to comment, a Hungarian diplomat from the country's Permanent Representation to the EU said that the currently running pilot projects include forestry work near Gyöngyöspata (felling, clearing of the area and planting new trees), the cleaning of the bed and banks of local streams near the same village, similar forestry works near Gyöngyösoroszi, the construction of new bicycle roads on top of a dam at the Tisza-river, and auxiliary road maintenance (e.g. clearing of road side channels, collecting road side trash, repairing bus stops, etc) at several locations across seven counties.
In particular, the road maintenance projects are executed in rural areas with scant or sometimes non-existent employment opportunities. Altogether, these projects already employ over 1,000 people for the time being, 8 hours a day, at a wage not below the national minimum wage, the diplomat insisted.
"The projects are too new to give any solid evidence, but experience so far is positive," he stated, adding that based on the result of the pilot projects, "the program shall be expanded to cover large numbers of people who are currently left behind by the labour market".
Following general election held in April 2010, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that voters had carried out a "revolution" by giving his party Fidesz (EPP-affiliated) two thirds of the seats in parliament to rebuild Hungary after a near financial collapse.
Hungary took over the six-month presidency of the Council of Ministers on 1 January 2011. Its first six weeks were marked by controversy over a media law adopted before Christmas.
On 16 February, the problem appeared to have been largely solved, with the European Commission welcoming amendments to the law that Hungary had pledged to make.
But analysts say that the media law is only the "tip of the iceberg" regarding the direction taken by Hungary under the Fidesz government.
In April, Hungary adopted a new constitution, which the opposition socialist leader, Attila Mesterhazy, called "a Fidesz party constitution". The constitution has been severely criticised by civil liberties groups and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament's liberal group, who called it "a Trojan horse for a more authoritarian political system in Hungary based on the perpetuation of one party rule".
The new Hungarian government has also adopted retro-active laws and "special taxes", prompting a number of Western firms to lodge complaints with the EU Commission.
Apparently disappointed by the EU's incapacity to defend democracy in Ukraine, Hungarian intellectuals recently called on the USA to take position against what they called their country's "autocratic system".