1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Special Events (2000 - 2009)

Gender Equality in Employment in Hungary and in some other Eastern European Countries (Draft)

Background paper prepared for the UNRISD report "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World"

Although in the period from 1990 to 2000 the male activity rates of the ex-socialist Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries still exceeded 70%, a significant part of the female population had either disappeared from the labour market through voluntary exit or exclusion, or had had no opportunity to enter it at all.

The rate of women dependent on their family or on society is highest in Hungary: in 2000, 48% of women aged 15–64 was absent from the labour market. Similar developments, albeit on a smaller scale, occurred in the other ex-socialist countries as well and although the loss of the labour market position of women in the period from 1990 to 1997/98 came to a halt, it was replaced by stagnation rather than improvement.

Stagnation was partly due to the recurrent waves of global economic recession. Hungary as well as many other countries considered it quite an achievement to keep employment level and prevent unemployment growth (in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, for example, the number of employed persons was lower in 2002 than in 1995).

Important as it is, the global economic context is not the sole explanation of the current state of affairs: the employment situation of women in the CEE countries is strongly affected by the absence of/delay in national measures to trigger changes and adjust to the new economic requirements—although improvement in this respect is an unquestioned priority and a permanent agenda item everywhere.

The CEE countries are active in many areas, in close co-operation with international organisations fighting for the assertion of human rights, to ensure gender equality and prevent all forms of discrimination against women. Interest in such activities escalated after the Beijing World Conference of 1995, and the countries concerned, including Hungary, reported significant achievements in diverse areas.

Unfortunately, employment was not one of the success stories.

The employment conditions of men and women are, of course, identical in many respects in the current context defined by accelerating labour market developments. The most general issues—i.e. availability of jobs and their prospective new criteria, etc.—are not gender-specific and hence need not be discussed as such. We shall nevertheless focus on the special situation of women, and circumstances sustaining the gender gap in terms of employment opportunities despite the changes and positive efforts so far.

The period under study coincided in several CEE countries with preparation for accession to the EU and accession to it in May 2004. Hungary, together with seven other ex-socialist countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia) became members of the EU and as such undertook to adjust to the EU objectives, corresponding—in the area of gender equality, too—to those of the UN. Within the context of gender equality in every respect, the EU made it a declared objective to promote the employment of women in the member states (Luxembourg 1997: the employment rate of women aged 15–64 shall attain 60% by 2010; Stockholm 2001: the employment rate of women shall attain at least 57% by 2005). The new member states committed themselves to taking the necessary measures to realise these goals in their own country, coinciding, in the case of women, too, with those of the Union.

However, in the years of accession preparation, the ex-socialist countries have not proved successful in boosting female employment. Despite many important and useful steps ahead to ensure equal rights to men and women (EU Accession Monitoring 2002), the social gap along the fault line of employment widened instead of narrowing, between men employed at a higher rate and women at a lower one in the organised (declared) economy and between persons enjoying social protection in the organised economy and those excluded from it.

The present paper discusses certain reasons of this social schism and the conditions of altering it. It consists of two parts.

Part 1 discusses circumstances limiting the employment of both genders, especially of women, in the ex-socialist CEE countries, with certain differences by country, such as low retirement age compared to the corresponding Western Europe limits; the mismatch between general education and the structure of the economy, and between genuine labour demand and labour legislation adjusted to the new situation and the employment-limiting implications of labour costs.

The same factors hinder the adjustment of labour market development to the constantly changing requirements of the economies and hence represent potential breakout points for employment promotion not only in the CEE countries, but throughout Europe.

Our main example is Hungary, but references will be made to other ex-socialist countries, too, as far as possible (unless specified otherwise, data originate from official national and international statistics, the Labour Force Surveys in the first place).

Part 2 focuses exclusively on the situation of Hungarian women absent from the labour market: the reasons of their inactivity and employment options available to them within and without the organised economy. Hundreds of thousands among them would like to enter/re-enter the organised economy (irrespective of their household/family obligations), and their chances to do so depend mainly on the outcomes of the adjustment process discussed in Part 1.