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It's better for someone to be seriously ill in the family than for a household to go without a regular income, say the poor in Hungary. Employment rates in Hungary are far lower than in western Europe, and fraud is rife. The Hungarian labour market is unable to assimilate the under-educated - and the black economy does not need them either. But social scientists say it does not need to be like this.


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Even Marx tells us that making and using tools is what distinguishes humans from animals, and that it is work that makes people human.

Working is often bad, but being unable to work is worse. In Hungary, people without any work at all are heavily stigmatised. "They can't, they don't want to, they don't," is the attitude.

There is an academic debate going on about how to reintegrate the long-term unemployed into the labour market and about how to get the less-well-educated to enter the workforce. The sociological approaches are very different from the political ones, since they take an empirical approach, attempting to find practical solutions to the real problems.

Janos Kollo writes in the latest issue of Cafe Babel that there is no need to accept the widely held view that it is natural for only a fifth of uneducated people to have a job. The economist and sociologist argues that until education can be improved, something must be done because this is the greatest "scandal" of the Hungarian labour market. Over the course of just a few years, the difference between the employment levels of the uneducated and those with degrees rose from 10 per cent to 47 per cent.

"There are two countries, and they differ primarily in their level of education," he writes. He argues that it is impossible to prove or disprove that this is just a statistical problem since, as many say, many of the uneducated work in the informal economy. Kollo nonetheless that even in the informal economy the less well educated are at a disadvantage compared to the better trained. Further, he suggests, unemployment is one of the major causes of poverty. Surveys have shown that families worry more about the prospect of unemployment than about the prospect of a serious illness in the family.

© Ákos Stiller
Kollo disagrees with the claim that modern market economies have no need for untrained labour. It is true that the undereducated are more likely to be unemployed everywhere, but not to the extent found in the post-socialist countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary). In OECD countries with similar activity rates to us, 70-80 per cent of those with only primary education work. In these countries, even illiteracy is not a reason to exclude someone from the labour force.

Kollo warns against confusing the problem of under-education and the gypsy problem. Poland and Slovenia show that the same problems crop up in countries where there are few Roma. The under-educated, whether gypsies or not, have great difficulty finding work in central and eastern Europe. It is nonetheless true that Roma fare even worse.

The sociologist Balazs Kremer says that if we regard society and the economy as a closed system, then we can give up all hope of getting the excluded and their children back into the labour market. But, fortunately, this is not the case. More jobs can be created. Kremer argues that the government and the opposition are mistaken in focusing on cutting taxes in order to improve activity ratios.

But why is it so important to improve activity ratios? Kremer's answer is that "a country's welfare and economic development is defined not only by the effectiveness of the people working, but also by the number of people working - by the proportion of society that is involved in creating value. If somebody who wasn't working yesterday today begins to create value, this contributes to the nation's wealth and welfare. In consequence, activity ratios are not just a social issue. Activity ratios are part of a nation's economy and welfare."

But where can the excluded work? They certainly aren't suited for traditional full-time jobs. They are likely to end up in atypical, poorly paid, unpleasant and often uncertain part-time jobs. Bank branch cleaners, washerwomen, servers in canteens, pizza couriers.

"This is not something to look down on: it's the kind of post-industrial development you expect in the services sector," Kremer says.

Currently, only the black economy is creating such jobs. But the state is trying to crack down on them - under economic circumstances where neither employees nor employers have any interest in obeying the rules. Workers risk losing the benefits on which they depend if it emerges that they work informally, while entrepreneurs risk being fined if they hire people illegally.

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