Growth in peril as east Europeans "sweat blood" to find workers

Fri Sep 30, 2016 3:53am EDT
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By Gergely Szakacs

SOLTVADKERT, Hungary (Reuters) - At peak harvest time, Hungarian winemaker Sandor Font has enough work for 30 people at his vineyard south of Budapest - if only he could find enough grape-pickers.

On a recent sunny day he was expecting 20 to show up. In the end, he had to make do with about 10, mostly guest workers from Romania. "We are really sweating blood to find enough people. This is an enormous challenge," he says.

His struggles are a symptom of a wider problem for countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, where years of heavy emigration to western Europe have created labor shortages that make it tough for businesses of all kinds to recruit.

That has the potential to curb economic growth and make it harder for these countries to catch up to Western European living standards. To plug the gaps, some of them are trying to poach workers from poorer, non-EU neighbors.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has reinforced Hungary's borders to keep out more than a million mostly Muslim migrants who have flowed into Europe since the start of 2015, has called a referendum on Sunday to seek support for that stance. He plans instead to entice "culturally similar" workers from countries such as Ukraine or Serbia.

Since the collapse of Communism, Poland has lost 2.5 million workers to western countries, compared with about half a million for Hungary and 3.5 million for Romania.

"If you look at our history after 1989, the main problems of the Polish job market were high unemployment and low availability of jobs," said Andrzej Kubisiak, a press official at Work Service, Poland's biggest human resources company.

"The situation has reversed," he said. "The challenge becomes finding a candidate, not a job."   Continued...

A temporary worker loads harvested grapes onto a tractor in a vineyard in Soltvadkert, Hungary, September 26, 2016. Picture taken September 26, 2016 REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh