Can we resolve the shortage of labour with immigrant workers?

Peter Rožič SJ, the Director of the Jesuit European Social Centre in Brussels, visited Hungary at the beginning of this week. This Slovenian Jesuit happened to be here amidst the demonstrations against the new law regulating overtime work. Starting from this very acute question, Szilárd Szőnyi asked him about the responsibility of employers and protesters, the dignity of labour, and whether and to what extent may guest workers, immigrants or refugees contribute to the solution of the shortage of labour in Hungary.

– You arrived in the heat of the protests in the streets of Budapest against the new law. What were your impressions about the demonstrations?

– Public protest is a basic right in a democratic society. People have many choices in expressing their views and demonstration is one of them. If it gathers a significant number of people it might impose pressure on a government, just as we see it in France with the yellow vest protesters. For some reason or other, demonstrations may turn violent. The organisers of protests may have to deal with violent groups, which may try to hijack the genuine goals of the movement.

– Though the demonstrations go far beyond the new law, it was this very act that triggered the new wave of political demonstrations in Hungary. Do the Jesuits have any principles or guiding rules about fair labour conditions, particularly overtime work?

– Our principles come from the social teaching of the Church, as most recently demonstrated in the encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, which places much emphasis on the dignity of labour. There is always a tension between economic development, on the one hand, and, on the other, the needs and the dignity of the human person. For instance, there are all kinds useful technologies, robots and applications, which can facilitate or even replace human work, but the human person must always be at the centre of our deliberations and decisions.

– Exploitation once was explained in Marxist terms, but Pope Francis keeps using it, adding that “this economy kills” – referring to the present world order. When it comes to working overtime, where can you see the risk of exploitation or even self-exploitation?

The relationship between the employer and the employee is always a potential source of stress if overtime is available. On the one hand, the employer should not be able to demand or even impose it: that would be forced labour. That is exactly why precise rules and laws on issues such as overtime should be drafted carefully through a meaningful dialogue between the credible representatives of employers, labour force and the broader civil society. On the other hand, I can share a double personal experience. I have seen individuals and communities around the world working 50-60 hours per week. They enjoyed their work, thrived in their productivity and creativity, and their families were rather happy. My weekly workload too sometimes consists of a huge number of hours yet most of them are meaningful and empowering. That is in part because I also take time to rest, sleep, exercise, pray, enjoy community – and I do not let this latter part be compromised or taken away. Yet, I have seen individuals and communities which, although people work only 35 hours per week, suffer from unnecessary stress or even burnout. In my opinion, the number of hours one works is a personal choice, as long as it comes down to a just, respectful and dignity-based agreement between the employer and the employee.

– I ask you as one who have worked with legal and illegal immigrants in Slovenia and in the US: to what extent may guest workers, immigrants or refugees contribute to the solution of the shortage of labour force throughout the Western world?

– A country may benefit tremendously from immigrant workers: this is the case in the US, Western Europe and beyond. Integrating immigrants into the labour market is not something extraordinary. It is just part of life. For example, many may decide to go to Hungary or to other places in Europe to look for a better future and the society there may welcome them and integrate them well. I am currently a migrant myself, in a sense, working as a foreign national and resident in Brussels. I worked in the United States on a temporary work visa in the educational sector as a professor. I have much enjoyed both. However, I have often seen major problems that the immigrants are facing. One of them was underpayment: since in particular countries certain parts of labour law may not apply to foreign workers, I have seen immigrants being exploited, and earning as little as 300 euros per month, which is far below the country’s minimum wage. There were many immigrants I worked with in the United States, who lived amidst miserable conditions. Yet, as soon as they were given fair work and life conditions, a vast majority of them succeeded.

– This was something the Hungarian government also acknowledged in his labour strategy a couple of years ago. But since the outbreak of the migrant crisis its main policy is to keep migrants away from the country, the shortage of labour must be cured in another way, notably opening the way to more overtime for native Hungarians. Any comment?

– The question whether it is possible to integrate masses of immigrants is a hot one all over Europe. There are countries with a greater capacity for integration, and there are countries that are less able to adapt. It also depends on the type of immigrants coming – their background, culture, education and a number of other factors. Some people are more capable of integration, some people are less. Yet, in any case, work is equally important for everyone. There is no doubt that Europe will have significant and most likely devastating work force shortages in the coming decades. There are a number of ways to address this problem. Welcoming foreign labour force is certainly one, but it also brings consequences, which can lead to conflict if the process is not handled in a holistic manner. I applaud the approach of our Jesuit Centre for Global Questions in Munich. When the regional government, having realised that language courses and similar means are not enough, asked how to integrate immigrants, the Centre proposed asking the immigrants themselves. So, having carried out research and developed solutions from the results, they went back to the Bavarian government, suggesting in great amount of detail what to do.

– I am sure you also see the differences in the approach to migration in Eastern and Western Europe, even in a community such as the Jesuits. While in the Western part of the continent the Church shares Pope Francis’s approach, in our country many faithful cannot agree with his stance, and, at least on this question, the Hungarian prime minister is a greater authority for them. How would you encourage Christians to continue being loyal members of the Catholic Church without having to give up their convictions on social issues?

Our views on society, which is made up of our neighbours, have to reflect our faith. The poor, in particular, are part of society. The Lord speaks of having come to spread the Gospel to the poor, to set them free. The Lord also tells us that those who serve the ones in need, those who are naked, thirsty, foreigners and prisoners actually serve Him. The Pope is forceful in presenting this message. We always act in a specific socio-political environment. We translate our faith into those societies, and that faith is shown within the structures, including the political environment, of each society. Our faith can and should respond to the call of our Lord in various ways. Now, certain Christians may not agree with what Pope Francis is saying on migration; other people may not agree with what he is saying about the economy or ecology – and some do agree. The main question is who are we as Europeans, Hungarians or Christians in front of God and one another? Sadly, many politicians use and abuse identity questions, as well as they abuse the question of migration and labour for their own political purposes. In my view, the more our responses come from a holistic and life-embracing experience, the more these responses will be evangelical.

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Frissítve: 2019. január 03.