This post is part of a series of blogs dealing with the non-realization (or limited realization) of distributive justice claims experienced by the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in society in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Public work programs in Hungary are the main instrument to foster labour market (re)integration, where means-tested social subsidies have been replaced by a so-called merits-based system, which involves employment in public work and pay below the minimum wage. The social welfare system and the ratio of means-tested and merit-based measures was significantly modified in 2015. Under the current system both unemployment measures and family allowance are merit-based, with people being entitled to benefits if they cooperate with the employment office and participate in public work programs.

The scheme is primarily targeted towards unemployed Roma, whose situation is often the result of their dramatically low level of education in comparison to the majority of the population. Activities offered in the frame of public work tend to be ungratifying and encompass undignified jobs, which are not designed to develop new skills and thus foster reintegration in the open labour market. Due to the low level of social welfare subsidies and public work wages, beneficiaries cannot maintain dignified living conditions for themselves and their families, which further increase marginalisation and social exclusion.

Public works play a significant role in social policies, particularly in disadvantaged areas of the country. Public work enhances local hierarchies and increases the powerlessness of the Roma involved, whose social allowances are now tied to public employment. Once there, Roma become trapped in this circle of benefit dependency and are thus not sufficiently (re)integrated in the open labour market.

This measure is not perceived anymore as an employment policy by those affected neither is the demand of employment in the open labour market brought to their mind. Rather, poverty mitigation and activity in exchange for benefit are now the central objective. This process decreases the demand of all actors to take active steps toward employment.

The public work program may constitute an indirect discrimination based on ethnic origin prohibited by EU law. Article 3 (1) of the Race Directive provides that indirect discrimination is prohibited in relation to employment and working conditions, including dismissals. Detrimental conditions of public work especially related to holidays, suspension and dismissal are arguably not justified objectively by a legitimate aim.

The Hungarian public work program thus undermines the achievement of the objectives of the attainment of a high level of employment and of social protection, the raising of the standard of living and quality of life, economic and social cohesion, and solidarity by indirectly discriminating against unemployed Roma people.

By Sára Hungler and Ágnes Kende
written for the ETHOS Project as Working Paper within D6.2
The cross-country analysis  is available at: