Hungarians living near the western border go to Austria to work for salaries many times more than what they would earn at home, and while Austrians previously looked down on Hungarian workers, they now realize that we can be entrusted to do the job. Who performs his work properly is rewarded.
News spread like wildfire a few weeks ago that technicians and skilled workers are no longer to be found in western Hungary, including Győr-Moson-Sopron county. The situation is not at all surprising as many of them are working abroad. The Budapest Beacon asked some of them when they decided to work abroad and what would be necessary for them to return to Hungary to work.
“I recommended a former colleague of mine for a job abroad. My boss there called him in for an interview and informed him that no one would dictate to him,” says József, who has been working in Austria for nearly 25 years. “Since then my colleague also works abroad, of course,” he adds.
József asked that we not use his real name and not disclose his profession, only that it is a building trade in high demand both at home and abroad. He had been working in Hungary for 19 years when the opportunity came shortly after the system change (1989). He thought he would go abroad for a maximum of five years. That was nearly 25 years ago. When asked why, he answered laconically: “Money.”
Since then he has been working for the same company, which has grown ten-fold and thus is only interested in larger projects nowadays. This is one of the main reasons they pay their workers officially. In the agricultural sector it sometimes happens that smaller companies try to employ people without reporting them, but it’s not worth it for his boss, says József. It’s not that they couldn’t pay the EUR 40,000 fine but that they would lose their state orders if word got out.
The company employs some 100 people, more than 50 percent of whom are Hungarian. At the time of the political change in 1989 the company looked down on workers coming across the border who did not know the language and always did things differently and badly, says József. A little time was required in order for the Hungarians to learn the foreign methods. According to him, Austrians work more precisely and thoroughly. The conditions are also different, and the rudiments of the trade are more expansive. Vocational students learn an actual trade abroad, practicing for ten months and attending school for two. For their work they receive a serious hourly wage of seven or eight euros.
The Austrians came to realize that they could put the Hungarians to work. “Their attitude towards work is to let other people do it,” says József about his “in-laws”. Those Hungarians work in Austria who want to work. He thinks that nowadays Austrians are happy to hire Hungarians and may even prefer them to Austrians.
Everyone asks how much you make
The first question is always “how much do you earn”, says József. “For 25 years I’ve been telling them the same as at home. In 1992 Hungarian monthly wages were 12,000 Ft. It was the same in Austria, just in Austrian schillings. The difference was that 1 schilling was equal to 7 forints at the time, but by the time the euro was introduced in 2002 one schilling was worth nearly 18 forints.” He has no difficulty explaining why it was worth it to him to work abroad. “I could buy something new each month. I could build my house in well under five years.”
While differences today are somewhat less, a starting tradesman earns around EUR 1500 a month (roughly HUF 465,000). After some years he can earn EUR 2000 (HUF 620,000) a month net. But if he travels beyond neighboring Burgenland, he can earn substantially more. “Burgenland is to Austria what Borsod (county) is to Hungary,” goes the saying. There are even 13th and 14th months wages, the one paid in December, the other at the beginning of July.
Presently in Austria the work week is 38.5 hours. József works nine hours daily, and for this the term “long week-short week” exists. Most construction takes place in summer, and for this reason his boss insists everyone work every second Friday. The overtime gets applied to the winter months when there is less work. “I’m at home. I get my salary and I don’t work. I finished my work on December 17th and only resumed work on February 8th,” explains József.
“Bosses abroad give what workers are entitled to,” he says. “For example, at the end of the year he thanked us for the year’s work with gifts. The summer calendar was posted in April, so that everyone could mark when they wanted to go on holiday. The only condition was that no more than 16-18 people (roughly 15 percent of the company’s employees) could go on holiday at any given time.”
Reimbursement of travel expenses
The Austrian state contributes towards the cost of fuel. The amount is capped, and different rules apply to those who commute than locals, but József receives EUR 1500 (HUF 465,000) from the state every year after his daily commute of 70 kilometers.
They will also receive their pension primarily from abroad. He has another two or three years of work, which is why he cannot say exactly how much he will receive, but one of his colleagues recently retired after 20 years of work. His salary was similar to József’s. He receives an Austrian state pension of EUR 700 (HUF 215,000) a month. Before moving to Austria he worked in Hungary for 22 years, for which he receives a Hungarian state pension of HUF 49,000 (about EUR 160) a month.
“I would return to Hungary for a little less money,” says József.
Starting mechanics make EUR 1200
Gábor works as a car mechanic at a dealership in Burgenland. Officially he receives a net monthly salary of EUR 1500 (HUF 465,000). When he started out several years ago, he netted EUR 1200 (HUF 370,000). Before that he worked for a Hungarian dealership for HUF 100,000 a month. Like József, he receives an extra month’s salary twice a year and the fuel refund. Gábor says Austrian employers are required to increase wages every year.
At first it was difficult, he says. Furthermore, in Burgenland they speak a different form of German from one village to another and it is difficult to understand. He was recommended for a job, but whoever goes abroad without knowing someone can get a job performing the least desired work, at least initially. At first his Austrian colleagues taunted him but now they accept him.
“You can apply overtime to other times of the year but you have to take your vacation, because they don’t pay you extra if you don’t. If you want to take it the following year, then they have to pay it,” he explains. “If you make a mistake, they penalize you. But everyone has insurance, so you are protected against everything.”
Circumstances here are different, as in the case of the construction industry. “If you need a tool, they immediately obtain it for you. At home they often told us to solve the problem somehow,” says Gábor, who adds that they were surprised to learn he had a diploma from an academic high school. Austrians can go to work at the age of 18 after three years of vocational training providing they pass their exams and served their six months in the army.
Gábor only works abroad for the money but says there would be no point in going home if he could get the same pay. It is not just Austrian salaries that are higher but also the family subsidies and pensions. Even official matters take a fraction of the time at government offices in Austria than they do in Hungary.
A number of his acquaintances work abroad as truck drivers or warehouse employees. They say the same thing as Jözsef: “Those Hungarians work in Austria who want to work and want to get ahead, whereas it appears many Austrians prefer sitting at home to working.”
Guest workers coming from afar
The number of guest workers is really growing in the region, according to a Hungarian source. More and more are moving to the western part of Hungary from other parts of Hungary. In Nógrád, Borsod and even Csongrád, groups of friends are moving to Sopron where they rent a flat. From there they go to work in Austria. And while some work is paid under the table, most of it is reported.
Guest workers from Slovakia are the biggest competitors, and one can see many cars with Slovak plates, although the ones parked next to green houses or at hospitality premises in Burgenland are mostly Hungarian.
Where would they find work were they to return?
Certainly not in Petőház whose former sugar factory is mothballed except for a small packaging facility. Nor in Kapuvár, whose famous meat-processing plant has closed and is slated for demolition.