Hungarian Conservative

The ‘Hungarian Model’ — Guest Workers Come, Work, and Go Home

Bangladeshi guest workers aboard a Cypriot boat near the island of Crete in Greece in 2011.
Stefanos Rapanis/EPA/MTI
The new Hungarian draft law laying down general rules on the entry and residence of third-country nationals is an unprecedentedly strict piece of legislation, not only in Europe but also globally, to regulate the employment of workers from outside the European Union.

The following is a translation of an article written by Sayfo Omar, a researcher at the Migration Research Institute (MRI), originally published in the 2023/16 issue of Horizont, the periodical publication of the MRI.

An unprecedentedly strict—not only at the European level but internationally, too—draft law has been submitted to Parliament to regulate the entry and employment of guest workers from outside Europe. The lawmakers have introduced a series of guarantees to ensure that guest workers cannot stay in the country after their contract expires, nor can they bring their families with them. The legislation, therefore, while guaranteeing the human rights of workers in line with European standards, introduces practices even stricter than those of the Gulf countries on several points.


A draft law on the Admission and Right of Residence of Third-Country Nationals, which regulates the employment of guest workers in Hungary, has been submitted to Parliament.[1] This is the draft of the strictest guest worker law in Europe, which aims to address labour shortages in strategic economic sectors while, at the same time, providing guarantees to prevent workers from non-European countries from staying in Hungary after the expiration of their contracts for other reasons.

Over the past decades, there have been two dominant models for guest workers in the world.

One was the programmes that started in Western European countries in the 1960s, which later led to workers settling, bringing their family members with them, and eventually acquiring citizenship. These programmes, once necessary for economic reasons, have thus led to political and social problems that remain unresolved to this day, even though the proportion of foreigners in society who have been brought in in this way is typically around just five per cent.

The second type of practice was introduced by the Arab Gulf states, which also began to accept foreign workers in the 1960s. Although the number of foreigners in these countries now far exceeds the ‘indigenous’ population, their presence does not challenge the culture and society of the host countries. The simple reason for this is that governments consistently say no to the naturalization of migrant workers, so they simply cannot become a political factor.

But what model does the new Hungarian regulation follow? Can the door be opened to mass migration? Does the arrival of guest workers pose a threat to the structure and dominant culture of Hungarian society?

An analysis by the Migration Research Institute examines the new Hungarian draft law in the light of past European and Arab practices. It first reviews how the Western European guest worker programmes have led to political and social problems that have become acute, then it looks at the Arab example, and finally, the Hungarian legislation to see how it relates to these practices and what it suggests for the future.

Guest Workers in Hungary

The Hungarian Government started to develop a legal framework for the domestic employment of guest workers in the first half of 2023 to address the growing labour shortages in strategic economic sectors. As the impact assessment sheet accompanying the draft at the time stated, ‘the availability of the necessary labour force is essential to maintain the viability of investments, but any labour that is available is locally dispersed or inadequate in terms of skills.’ Consequently, as it goes on to explain, ‘in order to address mobility problems and to implement retraining, it is necessary to employ guest workers on a temporary basis to ensure the sustainability of investments and to maintain competitiveness’.[2]

The idea of employing foreign workers is not new in our country. Hungary started importing large numbers of foreign workers in 2016, mainly from Serbia and Ukraine. However, the slowdown in the domestic spiral in wages and the Russo–Ukrainian war, which has allowed Ukrainians to work in all EU countries now, have led to a significant drop in the number of workers from these two countries.

Today, Hungary employs around 110,000 foreign workers, most of them from the European Union.

Although the government has set a quota of 20,000 for third-country nationals to meet labour market needs, this is yet to be entirely used. However, it is estimated that tens of thousands of additional guest workers could be needed by the end of 2024.[3]  At present, 17 non-EU countries are sending blue-collar workers to Hungary, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia. Outside the EU, most white-collar workers come from South Korea, Israel, Egypt, India, and Tunisia.[4]

The new legislation replacing the current Aliens Act, officially known as Act II of 2007 on the Admission and Right of Residence of Third-Country Nationals, Act L of 2023, which was intended to regulate the employment of guest workers in Hungary, was due to take effect on 1 November.[5] However, the government has withdrawn the bill to further tighten the restrictions. The new version was tabled on 14 November.

Political rivals and critics say that by recruiting guest workers, the Hungarian government, which has taken a strong anti-immigration stance so far, is now opening the door to mass migration. Critics also point to examples from Western Europe to show that the arrival of guest workers can pose a long-term threat to host societies and trigger a process of ‘ghettoization’.[6] But are these arguments valid?

Migration Research Institute on Twitter: “Hungary’s proposed new #ImmigrationLaw intends to overcome the #LabourShortage in strategic sectors of the #economy by applying tighter control of foreign workers’ employment and residency in #Hungary. 🇭🇺 / Twitter”

Hungary’s proposed new #ImmigrationLaw intends to overcome the #LabourShortage in strategic sectors of the #economy by applying tighter control of foreign workers’ employment and residency in #Hungary. 🇭🇺

The European Experience

The fact is that the legacy of the former practice of inviting migrant workers is a rather unsavoury one in Western Europe. Under programmes that ran between 1955 and 1973, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland all opened their labour markets to nationals of various countries, often from outside Europe, who subsequently not only stayed, but also brought their families with them, leaving the host countries with social, cultural, and political challenges that remain unresolved to this day.

The German example fits this model very well.

Germany has 3.5 million people of Middle Eastern origin (including 3 million Turks) and 1.1 million people of African origin living among its populace,

who together make up 5.5 per cent of the population, not counting those who arrived in the 2015 migration wave.[7] The vast majority are descendants of former guest workers who already have German citizenship. Although their share in society is quite low, the change in the country’s cultural image is the subject of ongoing political and social debate in Germany.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the demand for labour in sectors such as heavy industry and agriculture, which German workers found less attractive, increased after the Second World War.

The political leadership of the time addressed the shortage by recruiting temporary foreign workers, thus, in the 1960s and 1970s, large groups of workers from southern Europe, North Africa, and Turkey arrived under interstate agreements. Germany and Turkey signed a contract for labour supply in 1961, and the flow of labour was so large that, by 1964, there were already 1 million guest workers in the country.[8] In November 1973, the government introduced a ‘recruitment ban’ on workers arriving from non-European Economic Area countries in the wake of the oil crisis, after which guest workers were afraid to leave the country for fear of losing their livelihoods.[9] Guest workers typically settled in areas offering cheap housing. Later, migrant families from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans, who arrived in different waves, also found a home in these areas. This is how the neighbourhoods of these parallel societies were created, which still today present the German State with a series of social, public security, and economic challenges.

In 1979, the Social Democrats proposed that foreigners should be allowed to vote in local elections and that their children born in Germany should be granted German citizenship. However, this was eventually not implemented at the time.[10] The issue of family reunification first became a focus of political and social debate in the 1980s, when it became clear that the majority of migrant workers were not returning home, but rather bringing their spouses and families with them to Europe. The debate later continued when it emerged that a significant proportion of the children of migrant workers also chose a partner from their mother country to bring with them to Europe. In many countries, the authorities saw this trend as a failure of integration.[11]

In January 2000, a new citizenship law came into force, allowing long-term foreign residents and children born in Germany to foreign parents to acquire German citizenship. This was done in the hope of speeding up integration, as citizenship was conditional on, among other things, the acquisition of the German language.[12]

By the early 2000s, family migration accounted for a third of all immigration to the European Union, including Germany. The trend was also fuelled by a change in the authorities’ practice of giving preference to members of undermanned professions over unskilled workers when granting visas.[13] At the same time, family reunification also opened the door to those who would otherwise have been denied entry to Europe because of their financial situation or lack of education. From the perspective of the host countries, this means that, in the case of family members, they are denied their fundamental right to select those whom their economies really need. In addition,

those who arrive as family members are also entitled to various social benefits and services, which are a burden on the budget, too.

In response, several countries have introduced stricter rules, linking the issuing of visas to the income and housing conditions of the receiving party already living in Europe and to the language skills of the arriving person.[14]

However, Germany now has millions of foreign nationals, who are politically and socially indispensable, with a higher-than-average unemployment rate; and who, unlike the former guest workers, do not always stimulate the economy.

Meanwhile, illegal immigration is also on the rise—92,000 people entered Germany illegally between January and September 2023.[15] Although many argued during the 2015 migration wave that immigrants were needed for economic reasons, the new arrivals have not fully lived up to expectations: only 62 per cent of asylum seekers found work after 7–8 years of residence.[16] Meanwhile, the deportation of ineligible migrants has been slow, with only 13,000 people sent home in 2022, while 304,000 were deemed unauthorized.[17]

The Arab Austerity

In the 1960s, the oil wealth of the Arab Gulf countries led to an unprecedented economic boom. As a result, the countries opened their doors to millions of foreign workers. Today, 41.6 per cent[18] of the population in Saudi Arabia, 88.52 per cent[19] in the United Arab Emirates, and 88.4 per cent[20] in Qatar are foreigners. As in Western Europe, migrant workers in Arab countries have also settled in designated areas, where they have created communities separate from the majority society. However,

unlike in Western Europe, the presence of foreigners in these countries does not cause political and social tensions.

The reason is that in these countries, the rights of migrant workers are limited, and the idea of naturalization is not even considered.

The Gulf countries are selective about where they invite workers from: initially, they welcomed citizens from poorer Arab countries, but the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1960s and later Islamism made it politically risky to bring in masses of people who spoke the same language and therefore blended relatively easily with local society. They therefore turned to Asian countries with marked linguistic and cultural differences, so that their arrivals would be sufficiently isolated from the host societies.

Foreigners come under the so-called ‘sponsorship’ (kafeel in Arabic) system.

The idea is that they are sponsored by a private or legal person of nationality.[21] They cover the worker’s travel costs, and provide their work and accommodation. Workers typically have to ask the sponsor for permission to change jobs and sometimes to leave the country as well. Over the decades, the role of sponsor has generally been taken over by state-controlled, privately owned recruitment agencies, which then post the workers to employers.[22] Since the affairs of guest workers fall under the Ministry of Interior, not the Ministry of Labour, foreigners are legally outside the scope of labour laws. Critics say, however, that this system creates opportunities for exploitation of workers and abuses by employers.

Workers are allowed to bring their families with them, but only if their wages and housing conditions reach the level required by law. Typically, only skilled workers can meet this. In this case, the breadwinner becomes the sponsor of the family members. However, if he loses his job and has to leave, the family members cannot stay either. Additonally, foreign children born there are not entitled to citizenship.

International Network for Immigration Research Established by MCC

Over the decades, illegal residents have caused several problems in many countries. Deportations have been effective, with no mass amnesty programmes to allow long-term stays.[23] At the same time, if the countries consider the presence of migrant workers undesirable, they can easily send them home. During the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, for example, countries sent two million workers home in a matter of just a few weeks after the governments of their countries of origin sided with Iraq.[24] In addition, every year, there are reports that some authorities are sending back migrant workers en masse after they try to stay illegally, or economic trends make their work expendable.[25]

The ‘Hungarian Model’

As in Western Europe and the Arab countries, it is the labour shortage in strategic sectors in Hungary that is now making it necessary to employ foreign workers in large numbers.[26] The general condition for the issuing of a work permit is that there is no suitable (nationals, EEA citizens) labour available for the job to be allowed to be performed by the third-country national; and that the third-country national is fit to perform the job.[27] Such a restriction does not exist either in Western Europe or in the Arab countries. Although there are efforts in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to attract nationals to the labour market, it is common practice for nationals who are employed in specific jobs in the market spheres to hire a foreign assistant to do the work for them.

The Hungarian law is particularly humane compared to the practices in the Gulf countries.

While the latter typically do not take into account the rights of migrant workers, often leaving them at the mercy of the ‘sponsor’, Hungarian law guarantees basic human and workers’ rights in line with EU principles. Workers can return to their home country at any time and are entitled to health care and other services from their contributions. In many areas, however, Hungarian legislation is even stricter than the Arab practice.

While the politically motivated critics correctly state that some recent investments (including battery factories) will in the future be able to operate only with foreigners due to the lack of Hungarian labour, they consistently ignore the fact that the newly built plants are part of supply chains that are essential for the national economy, whose other chain links employ mainly Hungarian citizens, work with Hungarian suppliers, and whose sustainability can only be guaranteed by new investments.

The strategic nature of the programme is reflected in the fact that only ‘preferred employers’ are entitled to invite guest workers to Hungary, defined by the Law (§ 17/30 Article 3) as ‘1) an employer having signed a strategic partnership agreement with the government; 2) any employer who implements an investment project of preferential status for national economy considerations; 3) any employer who has a partnership agreement within the framework of the Outstanding Exporter Partnership Programme (OEPP).’ In this respect, Hungarian legislation is stricter than that of the Arab countries, where individuals and companies can invite guest workers into the country without meeting any special requirements. In Hungary, on the other hand, the state only allows the employment of foreign workers in priority areas of the national economy.

Hungarian law defines self-employed persons separately. They are not employees but are active in the market, typically in the service sector, as competitors of Hungarian entrepreneurs. Therefore, in the first instance,

they are only granted a residence permit for one year, which may be enough time to assess whether the business can stand the test of the market.

This is partly in line with the strict practice in Arab countries.

While in Arab countries, there is typically no upper limit on the number of guest workers arriving annually, in Hungary on the other hand, the draft law stipulates that the number of guest workers will be determined ‘annually by the Minister responsible for employment policy in agreement with the Minister responsible for the employment of third-country nationals in Hungary’ (§ 17/30 Article 4). The state does not therefore issue blank cheques, but rather, reserves the right to determine the maximum number of arrivals per year.

The domestic employer does not recruit workers himself but can only do it through an ‘employer registered as a lender’. These are legal entities designated and vetted by Hungarian public bodies, who guarantee that the worker they have seconded is suitable for the job and will leave Hungary at the end of his contract. In this respect, Arab and Hungarian practices are very similar.

While the former Western European and the current Arab regulations largely do not set a ceiling on the length of time a worker can stay in the country for work, the Hungarian work permit is valid for two years and can be extended for up to one year for the purpose of employment under the Law (§ 16/2 Article 7). Under no circumstances, however, may it be extended beyond three years. In this way, the law effectively neutralizes the EU practice whereby third-country nationals who have resided in a given country for five to ten years become eligible to apply for citizenship.[28] In this respect, the Hungarian legislation is in line with the practice in Arab countries in terms of stringency.

The Law (§ 15/25 Article 3) specifically states that ‘during the period of validity of the residence permit for foreign workers and after its expiry, no other residence permit may be applied for in the country’. This is important because, under other laws, a foreigner who has previously resided legally and uninterruptedly in Hungary for at least three years may apply for a permanent residence permit of unlimited duration in Hungary.[29] The law regulating the status of guest workers therefore prevents foreign workers from applying for a residence permit on any other grounds. If, for example, an Indian guest worker meets a Hungarian lady and they get married, the man cannot apply for a new visa to stay. He must first travel home to India and then submit his application to the Hungarian embassy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Western European countries allowed family reunification in droves for settled migrant workers. Under the relevant legislation in the Gulf countries, a migrant worker is entitled to bring their family with him if they can prove, among other things, that their salary is sufficient and that their housing conditions are adequate for their care and accommodation, which is typically not the case for unskilled and low-skilled workers. However, Hungarian legislation is much stricter than the above,

as the law (§ 38/69 Article 4) categorically excludes the possibility for guest workers bringing their family members with them.

Back then, Western European countries selected the countries from which to import people with temporary work contracts mainly based on economic and supply-side considerations. The decisive factor was therefore which country had the labour force missing from European economies, while for Arab countries, as we have seen, other political and cultural factors were also important.

The Hungarian legislation states (§ 150/278 Article 8) that the Hungarian Government is entitled to determine the list of countries from which guest workers can be employed. The countries on the current list are typically peaceful cultures, so there is no security risk. In addition, there are no conflicts in these countries that could be invoked to make workers eligible for refugee status in any other European country, and there are also well-established deportation agreements with their governments, so that those who try to stay after their contracts expire can be easily sent home. In this case, the costs are borne by employment agencies, not the Hungarian government. Under the law, the employer is obliged to ensure that the guest worker with a residence permit leaves Hungary no later than the sixth day after the termination of his employment contract. If the employer fails to comply with this obligation, the National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing shall impose a fine on the employer at the rate specified by law. The employer shall be exempt from paying the fine only if he proves that he has acted in accordance with the normal procedure to be expected in the given circumstances in fulfilling his obligation.


The draft law laying down general rules on the entry and residence of third-country nationals is an unprecedentedly strict piece of legislation, not only in Europe but also globally, to regulate the employment of workers from outside the European Union. Lawmakers have introduced a series of guarantees to ensure that workers cannot remain in Hungary after the expiration of their employment contracts and cannot bring their families with them. While the legislation guarantees the human rights of workers in line with European standards, it also introduces stricter practices than in the Gulf countries on several points.

Read next:

Budapest Migration Conference Offers Dialogue at Critical Policy Moment

[1] The text of the draft law in Hungarian:

[2] Impact Assessment Sheet, KKM/15444/2023/NNY, 2 May 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[3] Növekedés, ‘Megvan, mennyi külföldi dolgozik most Magyarországon’, 27 October 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[4] Növekedés.

[5] Act L of 2023 on the Employment of Guest Workers in Hungary, 1 November 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[6] Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland Movement), ‘Félmillió vendégmunkás: Embercsempész lett a kormány is?’, 4 July 2023,, accessed 29 October 2023.

[7] DW (2022), ‘Germany: Over 1 in 4 people have “migrant background”’, 4 December 2022., accessed 29 October 2023.

[8] DOMID, ‘Migrationsgeschichte in Deutschland’, Dokumentationszentrum und Museum über die Migration in Deutschland e. V., accessed 29 October 2023.

[9] Maren Borkert and Wolfgang Bosswic, ‘The Case of Germany’, in Migration Policymaking in Europe, Amsterdam University Press, 2011, pp. 96–97.

[10] WSI Report, ‘Die Gastarbeiter Geschichte und aktuelle soziale Lage’, 16 September 2014., accessed 29 October 2023.

[11] Joëlle Moret, ‘Contesting Categories: Cross-Border Marriages from the Perspectives of the State, Spouses and Researchers’, 17 July 2019,, accessed 29 October 2023.

[12] Susan Willis McFadden, ‘German Citizenship Law and the Turkish Diaspora’, 2018., accessed 29 October 2023.

[13] Hein De Haar, Katharina Natter, and Simona Vezzoli, ‘Growing Restrictiveness or Changing Selection? The Nature and Evolution of Migration Policies’, 13 August 2018., accessed 29 October 2023.

[14] Laura Block, ‘“(Im-)proper” members with “(im-)proper” families? – Framing spousal migration policies in Germany’, 17 July 2019., accessed 29 October 2023.

[15] DW (2023A), ‘Germany: Illegal immigration set to exceed record high’, 21 October 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[16] DW (2023B), ‘Refugees overqualified and underpaid in Germany’, 12 August 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[17] Infomigrants, ‘Germany returned almost 13,000 migrants in 2022’, 26 January 2023., 29 October 2023.

[18] Argaam, ‘A Rundown on Number of Foreign Residents, Nationalities in Saudi Arabia’, 1 June 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[19] UAE Population Statistics 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[20] Expatica, ‘A guide to the population and people in Qatar’, 8 August 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[21] The exception is Bahrain, where the sponsor is a government agency rather than individuals or companies.

[22] ILO, ‘Ways Forward in Recruitment of Low-Skilled Migrant Workers’, 2016., accessed 29 October 2023.

[23] PubMed, ‘Labour Migration in the Arab Gulf States: Patterns, Trends and Prospects’, 1988., accessed 29 October 2023.

[24] GCIM, ‘Migration in the Middle East and Mediterranean’, September 2005., accessed 29 October 2023.

[25] Arab News, ‘40,000 Bangla Maids Sent Back Home’, 24 May 2016., accessed 29 October 2023.

[26] Impact Assessment Sheet.

[27] Government Decree 445/2013 (XI. 28.) on the Authorisation of Employment of non-EU Nationals in Hungary Not on the Basis of Single Application Procedure., accessed 29 October 2023.

[28] Schengen Visa Info, ‘EU Citizenship — How to Become an EU Citizen’, 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[29] BMBAH, Nemzeti letelepedési engedély, 2023., accessed 29 October 2023.

[30] Dakha Tribune, ‘250 Bangladeshi workers sent back home from KSA in two days’, 5 October 2019., accessed 29 October 2023.

The new Hungarian draft law laying down general rules on the entry and residence of third-country nationals is an unprecedentedly strict piece of legislation, not only in Europe but also globally, to regulate the employment of workers from outside the European Union.