Zontan Simon et al., Bloomberg Businessweek, September 24, 2019
Satwinder Singh caused quite a stir when he arrived in Sarud, a sleepy Hungarian village, four years ago. He was among a handful of guest workers who’d been brought over from India to work at a dairy farm that was struggling to stay afloat because of a labor shortage. The locals weren’t welcoming.
Hungary’s prime minister would probably prefer that Singh and his compatriots go unnoticed. Viktor Orban heads an anti-immigrant vanguard inside the European Union, which he claims to protect from “invaders.” He’s erected barbed-wire fences to keep out refugees and withheld food from some housed in detention centers. U.S. President Donald Trump says he’s like a “twin brother.”
Yet Hungary and other nearby nations with an anti-immigrant bent are quietly nudging open a back door to foreigners. Central and Eastern Europe are the fastest-growing part of the European Union, and with declining birth rates and the departure of millions of workers to Europe’s richer west, homegrown labor forces can’t fill companies’ demands.
In recent years, governments have been willing to admit white, Christian workers from such places as Ukraine and Belarus. But that supply is drying up. Now migrants from far-flung corners of the world have begun to arrive, challenging the notion that this corner of the continent can remain sheltered from Western-style multiculturalism.
In Hungary, the EU’s fastest-growing economy, there were 49,500 work permits held by non-EU citizens in 2018, more than double the previous year’s figure. In 2016, there were about 7,300. While Ukrainians held more than half of them, Vietnamese, Indians and Mongolians are now among the groups growing quickest.
Romania boosted the number of permits for non-EU workers by 50% this year, with Sri Lankans and Indians joining Chinese and Turkish employees at restaurants and construction sites. In Poland, crews of Mongolian women paint newly built Warsaw apartment buildings.
In Belgrade, ethnic Albanians are working alongside locals to turn the Serbian government’s vision for a swanky new waterfront complex into reality. On a recent visit, President Aleksandar Vucic expressed amazement at how economic need was trumping a history of ethnic tensions.
South Korea’s Hankook Tire this month delayed a $295 million investment at its factory in Hungary because of difficulties in recruiting employees. About 200 of its existing 3,000 workers at the plant are from Ukraine and Mongolia.