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Hungary enlists army in fight against virus joblessness

On the attack against joblessness - Hungary hopes military service can help get people off unemployment
On the attack against joblessness - Hungary hopes military service can help get people off unemployment ATTILA KISBENEDEK AFP
4 min
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Gyor (Hungary) (AFP)

As Hungary's coronavirus-hit economy shrinks and unemployment soars, thousands of Hungarians are seeking to join the army, attracted by job stability and a government scheme that fast-tracks recruits toward a military career.

Military service is also one of the Hungarian government's weapons to keep a lid on joblessness.

"Since the crisis began the number of applicants has risen by 100 percent," Major Tamas Durgo, head of military recruitment, told AFP at an army office in Budapest.

"We have loosened the admission procedure, that doesn't mean it's easier to get in now, just faster," said Durgo in front of an advertisement for military careers.

After a simplified medical test, applicants can sign up for six months of paid training after which they can either return to civilian life or -- if they make the grade -- embark on a career path in the army.

Apart from traditional military careers, the army also has jobs for engineers and IT experts, drivers and catering staff, said Durgo.

And besides defending the country's borders, or taking part in foreign missions, soldiers also help out during emergencies like floods and epidemics, he said.

Nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long underlined the importance of beefing up the military.

His government has been hiking spending on the previously underfunded military since well before the pandemic, with the proportion of GDP spent on defence rising from 0.95 percent in 2013 to 1.21 percent in 2019.

The army has had a high profile in the coronavirus crisis, for example being dispatched to look after hospitals.

Orban has emphasised patriotic education in schools while the Hungarian army has expanded a cadet programme and unveiled plans this month to operate up to 10 new military high schools by 2030.

- 'Work-based society' -

With unemployment rocketing due to the coronavirus crisis, officials say many are jumping at the chance of a stable job that the army offers.

"Already 2,500 have applied, with 900 starting basic training," said Szilard Nemeth, a government defence official, last week.

The latest data put Hungarian unemployment rising to around four percent in April, but analysts say the number may be almost double that given suddenly jobless entrepreneurs and freelancers have yet to register as unemployed.

An OECD forecast earlier this month said the Hungarian economy, which grew by 4.9 percent in 2019, could contract by eight percent this year, and by 10 percent if hit by a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Everyone who loses their job due to the coronavirus outbreak will have another one in three months," Orban has pledged.

Since coming to power in 2010 he has strived to build a "work-based society" based on "providing work, not aid".

Monthly unemployment payments are a paltry 200-350 euros ($225-400), depending on previous salary, and are stopped after three months.

- Strict routine -

Now donning military fatigues is one of three routes back from virus-related unemployment promoted in the government's recovery plan, alongside public works schemes and jobs in state companies.

At an army training field near the city of Gyor, 120 kilometres (75 miles) west of Budapest, Nandor Major, a boot camp leader, said that only some recruits have joined because of the virus.

"Many had already thought about being a soldier one day, so the crisis just gave them a push to take the step," he told AFP.

After completing a combat simulation drill with a dozen other rookies, Peter Kamondai told AFP that getting used to army life was a challenge.

"There is a strict daily routine here, but the physical side is the most difficult bit," he said.

Kamondai, 27, had started a medical massage business just before the crisis but said the lockdown gave him "no chance" to get it off the ground.

"My priority now is getting a stable income provided by the state, especially as my wife is having a baby soon," he said.

Another new recruit, former mechanic Tibor Tokei, told AFP he applied as he felt a "little lost in life" rather than because of virus-related worries.

"Actually I worked in different places month to month, so I wanted something steady," said the 22-year-old.

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