Among industrial relation specialists it is a common statement that in our times, atypical employment arrangements are becoming typical, or even the norm, and standard employment contracts the exception. This description fits well the recent rebound of employment via temporary agencies in Central Eastern Europe, and more specifically, Hungary.
Employment via temporary agencies is an atypical and flexible form of employment. It is based on a triangular relationship, in which an employee signs an employment contract with a temp agency, but (s)he is then leased to a user company, where the actual site of work is. In Hungary, the use of temp agency employment arrangements has been radically increasing since 2002. In a situation with a very “tight” labour market and flexible, employer-friendly regulations characteristic to Hungary, most recently, temporary work agencies and informal networks have played an increasing role in attracting, screening and “supplying” workers from economically depressed regions of Hungary, but also from non-EU countries, especially from Ukraine and Serbia to user companies in manufacturing. Nevertheless, although the significance of this atypical employment arrangement is clearly visible, temporary workers are invisible and the social implications of this atypical employment relation are not sufficiently discussed in public. Moreover, a characteristic feature of the Hungarian situation is that the hiring of immigrant workers is occurring in a period of government-induced hostility towards foreigners. Yet there is little awareness of, social reflection on, and open discussion of the nature and social implications of temporary work, its base in international migration, and associated social costs and implications.
Supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Budapest Office and Die Stiftung für Bevölkerung, Migration und Umwelt (BMU – Foundation for Migration, Population, and Environment), we interviewed 40 local and immigrant temporary workers in Hungary, working in multinational user companies in automotives and electronics. We interviewed temporary guest workers from Serbia and Ukraine, as well as Hungarian national workers from economically more depressed Hungarian counties, including those of Roma origin. Our main research aim was to explore migration trajectories and learn about how people’s lives were changing, including the life-work arrangements of guest-workers and temp workers in Hungary. Apart from looking into individual mobility motivations, trajectories, and the particularities in industrial relations, we also asked about temp employees’ social acceptance in the community and in the workplace. In other words, what we wanted to assess was what it means to be a temp worker – what social and other connotations does it have from the perspective of workers themselves?
All our interviewees were employed in production, mostly on the assembly line (35); 23 respondents worked in electronics and 17 in the automotive sector. A slight majority of our respondents came from abroad (21), while among Hungarian workers we had workers migrating from an economically depressed region, as well as local ones. Based on demographic statistics and patterns of career trajectories, we defined a preliminary typology of worker groups: 1. Transcarpathian workers, 2. local, (predominantly) Roma workers with lower qualifications or unstable family background; 3. Relatively mobile Serbian and other workers with Hungarian (or EU) citizenship, 4. mobile Hungarian workers – from Eastern or Southern economically depressed counties of Hungary (the most mobile, least precarious group). This typology helped us in discussing the findings, but we also highlighted the role of age, education, and family background. The role of groups of friends or family members who would migrate together or one following the other also proved to be significant.
Assessment of temp work from a bottom up perspective
Our respondents could not always tell whether they were temp workers or not. Characteristically, there were many other words describing their form of employment: being an „external”, employed via an „intermediary” or „sub-entrepreneur.” There were various ways of starting employment as a temporary worker. One common form of employment via a temp agency was mimicking an extended probationary period. Relatedly, the most mobile Hungarian workers, typically without dependents, screened temp agencies depending on their ’market’ – i.e. access to jobs in certain companies with higher wages or better working conditions. In the case of Transcarpathian workers personal intermediary connections seemed to positively impact the hiring process. Among Transcarpathians, however, the dependency on temp agencies as employers was the highest, and they could have no hope in getting a standard employment contract at the user company. Namely, their employment was conditioned by a work permit, and thus they could have only a fixed term employment contract with the temp agency, the employer in charge of dealing with all the paperwork. Similarly, local, especially Roma workers were typically hired on a seasonal basis. They could „exit” the job at any time, or look for alternative local employers for seasonal work, with similar arrangements of high dependency and suboptimal working conditions and wage levels. Workers from Serbia (Vojvodina) were typically in-between, either staying at the same temp agency but more commonly changing among user companies, or requesting such a change. While for (younger) Hungarian workers, employment via a temp agency was a regular, accepted form, at worst, a ’strange’ arrangement, for workers from neighboring countries it was mostly perceived as a viable job opportunity. Nevertheless there was also a clear difference between Ukrainian and Serbian workers. While Transcarpathians were used to intermediaries, workers from Vojvodina often referred to temp work as an unbelievable arrangement, requiring a major check, and a major dramatic choice situation. Good reputation and personal connections mattered in making the decision to take up a job in a distant place, including travelling more than 400 kilometers to the site of labour.
The most interesting and most difficult group to assess is the group of Hungarian mobile workers. In this group, perhaps indicatively, males were overrepresented. In generational terms, the older workers typically had a very difficult, often tragic work-life trajectory. While they typically depended more on the temp agency as employer (e.g. securing good housing) they were also the most careful in selecting the temp agency itself. In the case of younger temp workers, they could aspire not only to become standard employees, but also to further upward mobility, even at the site of work at the user company.
The most precarious groups of temp workers were those of local, mostly Roma workers, and especially Transcarpathian temp workers. For local, especially Roma workers, temp work was just one form among others of precarious seasonal employment. In the life trajectories of these workers, these forms of employment changed frequently, depending also on the production cycles of local metal companies. Very often, local workers had a sick or disabled family member in need of care, or suffered from illnesses themselves, which prevented them from seeking jobs in a more distant place and/or coping with intensive work requirements for a longer period of time. Transcarpathian temp workers had a very precarious, insecure employment arrangement, with up to 2 years of employment contract and a work permit which was pegged to a concrete employer – a temp agency. Younger respondents had typically been studying in their home country; among older workers we met many with international work experience, but this usually took the form of precarious, seasonal job arrangements. Most of our Transcarpathian interviewees formulated clear strategies to increase their autonomy from their employers, such as learning Hungarian and considering application for permanent residence.
Generationally, the temp agency seemed to be judged more as an accepted, ‘normal’ form or channel among our younger, and most mobile respondents.
Housing, social life and local integration of temporary workers
Mobile migrant temp workers spend their days predominantly in two spaces: in the dorm or shared apartments and its vicinity, and their workplaces. Securing appropriate accommodation was and remains a crucial and sensitive issue for mobile workers. As we heard, however, housing arrangements are typically suboptimal. The basic assessment was that in community housing arrangements individual workers cannot have a real private life. Typically, 3, 4, sometimes 8 workers were accommodated in one room. Unsurprisingly, there were many minor or major internal conflicts especially among people who did not know each other earlier and had different lifestyles. Worse, a socially problematic individual, e.g. someone suffering from alcoholism or depression could undermine the joint life and make the shared space unbearable. Not all temp agencies that were typically in charge of securing housing were willing to solve such problems. In the assessment of some workers, the large turnover in some of the plants, at least in the Western counties of Hungary, was due to alarming housing arrangements and much less because of work requirements. Simultaneously, housing went through major change in towns with excessive trained ‘labour supply’ needs: not only did temporary agencies rent out most of available flats and houses and thus push prices of rent significantly up – thus making access to housing more difficult for outsiders – , but also the government started a compensation program to build new worker dormitories.
The acceptance by locals and local core workers was a more complicated issue. At first, more generally, our mobile interviewees told us that they were relatively well received in their workplace communities. However, typically, when asked more about issues, feelings, friendships established, and the like, the majority of our respondents told us that there were misunderstandings, cleavages and limited social interaction with local core workers, culminating in ‘us’ and ‘you/them’ divisions. One telling issue was a publicly voiced resentment by some core workers, a complaint that mobile temp workers had their housing arrangements for free, whereas local core workers received no such extra benefits to cover their living costs. The other division was related to granting paid leaves, when internal conflicts could erupt between core workers and mobile migrant workers. For workers from neighbouring countries, a dominant, desired pattern is to work intensively and go home for more full days for major holidays. Core workers, who were left to work during holidays felt that migrant workers were making excessive demands when they requested such extended holiday leaves in order to travel home to spend more time with family.
Industrial relations with temporary agencies
The Hungarian Labour Code of 2012 and subsequent legal practices offered more autonomy and space to temporary work agencies (TWA) and user companies to agree on a division and distribution of employer rights and responsibilities. In Hungary, TWAs have induced migration processes, including the immigration of temporary workers from neighbouring non-EU countries.
Typically the exclusive obligation of temp agencies as employers was signing and ending employment contracts, as well as providing all associated administrative and other services – of which housing or securing travel to work were especially common. Typically, however, the temp agency representative was at best symbolically present at the site of labour (e.g. having an office). The personification of ‘real’ employers were the direct superiors – team leaders or shift leaders employed at the user company.
In many cases, especially in the case of non-Hungarian speaking Transcarpathian workers, there was a lack of information and clarity on issues related to changes in working time, but also on how to raise questions or complaints. In some instances, employers did not follow regulations on providing information in an appropriate and timely manner. For workers accommodated in dorms in the Western counties, a typically very sensitive issue was granting paid holiday leaves. While remuneration for temp workers could not be lower than for core workers, we have heard from workers that some temp agencies charge extra for various services, thus negatively affecting the net income of workers. Finally, in most critical instances, in companies in the Eastern Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok county, some temp agencies and user companies used the power imbalance instrumentally so as to force overtime work. Most critically, since Transcarpathian workers were hired on fixed term contracts and their work permits were valid only for a specific temp employer, they found themselves in a situation of dependency and insecurity.
It mattered whether a user company or temp agency followed legislation and regulation strictly, or only in more lax manner. In the latter case, employers consciously used the power imbalance in their favor. Even without clear violations of employee rights, temp agencies, sometimes hand in hand with user companies, used their power to put pressure on the workers, highlight dependency, and foster insecurity to make workers more docile.
Typically, temp workers did not know to whom to issue complaints when they had them. In the best cases, they were lucky to have good team leaders or shift leaders who would represent their voice at higher levels. Parallel to this, with only one exception, trade unions did not even appear as relevant actors capable of raising and solving worker demands. Finally, in terms of defending and representing employee rights and interests, the most alarming issue is a complete lack of information about where to turn in case of problems.
Our exercise highlighted and confirmed a dramatic change: temp agency work is not really contested and it is broadly accepted among temporary workers themselves. In other words, while some of our respondents find the arrangements strange or worth checking, the ultimate result is that temporary work has been well institutionalized in Hungary.
Based on the experiences related to us by our interviewees, we can conclude that temp agency employment is a Janus-faced arrangement for individual life careers and trajectories. That is, it provides and stands for a flexible, dual arrangement. For the most mobile (especially younger, without dependents, Hungarians from other counties or from Vojvodina) it can feature as a springboard. For the most exploitable groups, (locals, especially Roma, domestic caretakers, Transcarpathians, most often women) however, it denoted an almost coercive situation of dependency.
The scale of power imbalances favouring employers and the potential for exploitation of the most vulnerable groups is a further issue that calls out for wider awareness and public debate. Finally, trade unions and other organized social actors need to find good means and strategies in these dramatic changes – even in a political environment hostile to self-organized labour. One inspiring example could be, for example, the efforts of Austrian trade unions towards the integration of immigrant workers in order to reduce exploitation of those workers and prevent social dumping.
The interviews for the study were conducted by Olena Fedyuk, Cecilia Kovai, Tibor T. Meszmann and Andras Vigvari. The research and the writing of this study happened within the project of AnBlokk Kultúra és Társadalomtudomány Egyesület, generously supported by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Budapest Office and Die Stiftung für Bevölkerung, Migration und Umwelt (BMU – Foundation for Migration, Population, and Environment). The full study in Hungarian will be available on the website of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Budapest Office.
The photograph above represents a woman working at a Hungarian automotive plant. Source: auto.hu.