Hungarian soldiers work millions of hours of overtime guarding border amid military staff shortages

July 6, 2017

MTI Photo: Molnár Edvárd

Based on data published by the Minister of Defense on Tuesday, Hungarian soldiers worked a cumulative 5 million hours of overtime last year, reports Magyar Nemzet.

The jump in overtime hours began after the government ordered nearly the entire army to the southern border with Serbia in Fall 2015 to build a border fence and perform border protection duties. In January 2017 alone, the soldiers worked a total of 877,000 overtime hours. According to an officer who wanted to remain anonymous, soldiers patrolling the border fence work 12 hours a day and most of them are not allowed to take their weekend leave.

Initially in 2015, some 3,000 soldiers worked on the construction of the border fence. However, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was not satisfied with the speed of their performance. Knowing that the accelerated construction would require a tremendous amount of overtime hours, Minister of Defense Csaba Hende resigned.

His successor István Simicskó did everything to live up to Orbán’s expectations and increased the number of soldiers working on the southern border to 4,700. Minster Simicskó also ordered the soldiers to build 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of fence every day.

The National Assembly adopted a law in 2015 enabling the deployment of the army for border protection duties, despite defense policy experts’ warnings that the army – whose financing and ranks have steadily decreased since the transition from communism – was not fit to undertake such a duty.

Although the government has withheld information on the exact degree of staff shortages in the army, some officials have pleaded the case in recent years. Previous Minster of Defense Hende spoke about 5,900 unfulfilled positions in the army at a Parliament hearing in 2014. Colonel and Chief of Staff Tibor Benkő spoke about a 5,000-member personnel shortage. According to retired General Gyula Kovács’s estimates, the shortage could be even bigger, around 8,000 people.

Although the government raised the ideal number of military personnel to 31,000 plus 8,000 reserves at the end of 2016, according to the latest published official figures, the Ministry of Defense’s total personnel amounts to only 23,700 people, including ministry employees, public servants, colonels, and officers.

According to former Socialist (MSZP) now independent MP and policy expert Márta Demeter, there used to be a 450-hour yearly overtime limit for soldiers, but it was abolished by the government in order to legally deploy soldiers to the border for virtually unlimited periods. Meanwhile, the ministry decreased the overtime allowance of soldiers from HUF 2,500 (USD 9.2) per hour to HUF 2,200 (USD 8).

Also owing to staff shortages, the ministry mobilized both unfit units, such as the Air Force Band, and overqualified units, such as a veteran elite unit of the Afghanistan war, to perform border duty. According to retired General Kovács, this led to humiliating situations when freshly commissioned police officers commanded experienced veteran soldiers.

The malformed structure of the Hungarian army also contributes to staff shortages and the high number of overtime hours, as – according to the last published official figures – there are still more officers than privates in the army. According to Minister Simicskó, overtime payments between January 2016 and May 2017 totaled HUF 18 billion (USD 66.114 million) of public funds.