The deregulation of overtime in Hungary has triggered a social uprising

The deregulation of overtime in Hungary has triggered a social uprising

On 5 January, trade unions, political parties and civil society organisations mobilised some ten thousand people in Budapest to protest against what they call a “slave law”.

(Corentin Léotard)

“All together now: ‘We will not be slaves!’”. “We are not afraid to tell them: ‘We will not be slaves!’”. There is an arctic chill, but the atmosphere is heating up on Saturday, 5 January in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, where a crowd of about 10,000 people are marching from Heroes’ Square to the monumental neo-gothic parliament building looming over the Danube. For the third time since mid-December, trade unions, political parties and civil society organisations are demonstrating, arms linked, to protest against Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s nationalist government that has been ruling Hungary since 2010.

“It’s the factory for us, the castle for them”. The slogan, written on a placard held up by demonstrators is clear: the crowd are protesting both against a law to ‘flexibilise’ overtime and against the government’s growing authoritarianism. After winning its third electoral victory in a row in the April 2018 legislative elections, it commands a two-thirds ‘super majority’ in parliament that has allowed it to rule unchallenged since 2010. The ruling party has also been able to relaunch the controversial bill that it abandoned a year and half earlier under trade union pressure.

Paradoxically in this “illiberal” country, it is a very neo-liberal law, adopted amid chaotic scenes in Parliament on 12 December, coming into force on 1 January, that has aroused so much anger. The new law allows for the maximum number of overtime hours worked to be increased from 250 to 400 a year, and for employers to not have to pay for them for three years. Prime Minister Orbán argued for the bill as means of “removing stupid administrative obstacles” for those who want to “work more to earn more” to be able to do so, echoing former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with whom he was on excellent terms.

The trade unions do not share this view. The country’s biggest national trade union centre, MASZSZ (Magyar Szakszervezeti Szövetség), believes that “it will in practice make employees extremely vulnerable and tip the balance even more in the employers’ favour”. Hungary’s 4.5 million-strong workforce (in a population of barely 10 million) already works a 40 hour week and fears it will have to work even longer in future for salaries that are far lower than those of western Europe. Following an eight per cent rise on 1 January, the gross minimum wage is now 149,000 forints (€460) for unskilled workers, and 195,000 (€610) for skilled workers.

All the opposition parties were quick to oppose what they have called the “slave law”. Divided along ideological and generational lines, opposition leaders have set their differences and their egos aside to form a common front.

At the very beginning of the year, the Socialist Party (MSZP), the small left-wing party Dialogue, the youth party Momentum, the social-democrat Democratic Coalition (DK) and even Jobbik (a far-right party that has moved closer to the centre) sealed their new alliance in opposition to Prime Minister Orbán’s Fidesz, promising him that “2019 will be the year of opposition”. Smothered by aggressive identity propaganda, they are grasping this opportunity to make their voice heard on social issues.

Liberalism has failed, western liberal democrats have failed, as the 2008 crisis showed. That is how Viktor Orbán sees it. Hungary “will be based on a working society” not a Welfare State. His plan was unveiled in July 2014 in a speech that has been passed on to posterity, when he announced the advent of “illiberalism” in Hungary, now spreading across Europe. The “working society” cares little for workers’ rights. A new labour code that came into force on 1 July 2012 reduced the protection of salaries, restricted the right to strike and marginalised the role of trade unions in social dialogue.

German industry in the firing line

Fidesz is caught in a trap. Like the other countries of central Europe, Hungary is desperately short of workers to keep the economy going. Economy Minister Mihály Varga estimated in the summer of 2016 that the country “urgently needed” to import 200,000 foreign workers and the situation has deteriorated since then with the levels of emigration to western Europe. The Demographic Institute of Hungary estimates that 600,000 Hungarians have left the country since 2010, mainly to go to Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom. But the leaders refuse to call on migrant labour. As Prime Minister Orbán has insistently repeated “Hungary must rely on its own resources”. Even if that means making Hungarian employees work more.

The Socialist Party and Jobbik accuse the government of selling out, sacrificing the interests of Hungarian workers to the benefit of German investors, by far the biggest in Hungary (a quarter of the country’s foreign trade is with Germany). They don’t have proof, but they are convinced that the “slave law” is a means of payback to carmaker BMW which announced at the end of July that it would be building a factory near Debrecen, in the east of Hungary, investing a total of €1 billion.

“Behind its big speeches, Fidesz is betraying the people, for the benefit of the multinationals,” says a 50-year-old man, echoing the views of his party Jobbik, whose flag he is carrying in the crowd. At the root of this accusation is an unfortunate statement by Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, who said during a trip to Düsseldorf on 26 November that the bill was “welcomed by the business community of Baden-Wurttemberg” and that German employers had been waiting years for it. The response of assembly line workers at the Audi plant in Győr, in the west of the country, who are particularly exposed to the deregulation of overtime, was a clear ‘Nein, danke!’ (‘No thanks!’) to the government project.

The law on overtime has triggered more general social unrest. Several public service unions are calling for a general strike, as teachers, government employees and police officers are already subject to a lot of overtime.

“This government is appalling, it is undermining workers’ rights and rights in general,” says Lajos, a 65-year-old retired biology professor, one of the small crowd of 2,000 people who gathered foot of the Buda castle, at yet another event, on Saturday 19 January. A day of action during which the unions failed to “block the country”, as they had hoped, but which saw the protest spread to dozens of small towns and along the roads, in places where there hadn’t been any demonstrations for a decade. The victory of Audi employees who won a salary increase of 18 per cent for this year on 31 January, after a historic week-long strike in Hungary, showed them the way.

This story has been translated from French.