Interview. We spoke with Károly György, head of European policy at the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation, about a labor law proposal that has pushed workers into the streets. The Orbán government has effectively proposed a six-day working week.

In Hungary, the ‘slavery law’ is ‘turning the clock back to the ‘60s’

Hungarian trade unions and workers are demonstrating against a law that will raise the ceiling on legal overtime to 400 hours per year. This measure would effectively result in a six-day working week, or in working more than 10 hours per day for five days a week. While overtime would remain optional, it will be difficult for workers to effectively resist demands for extra work, due to the fear of being fired.

The recent street demonstrations, also joined by university students, have been marked by frequent tense moments and scuffles that have led to several people being injured. To better understand the situation there, we interviewed György Károly, the head of European policy at the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation (MaSZSZ).

This law has been called a “slave owners’ law” and a “slavery law” by unions and workers, who are expecting a worsening of an already bad situation. But what are the worst aspects of this law?

The worst aspect of this law is that it creates a further imbalance in the relationship between employer and employee, in favor of the former. It is also just as clear that this bill will end up enslaving employees, making them slaves at their workplace, putting them in a position of inescapable subordination towards their employer. When an employee gets a request to work overtime, it is difficult for them to say no, because they are afraid of losing their job, and because they feel like they are effectively being blackmailed. This law is turning the clock back to the ‘60s, when people were also working on Saturdays. I remember from when I was a child that the only day when the family could really spend time together was Sunday.

What is the situation of the labor market in Hungary?

On the one hand, there is a relatively low level of unemployment, which has been estimated at about 3.7 percent. However, in order to reach this figure, the government also counted temporary workers and Hungarians working abroad as ‘employed.’ On the other hand, there is a shortage of labor: 500,000-600,000 Hungarian workers have gone abroad. There are no jobs in the eastern regions of the country, while in the industry and sales sectors there are not enough workers. To give a more complete description of the Hungarian labor market, we should also talk about the lack of skilled labor, and especially about the fact that wages are not adjusted to the cost of living. According to the latest statistics, the net average wage is 240,000 forints, which is equivalent to €750-760, while the net minimum wage is €285. Meanwhile, the minimum subsistence level is €283-284.

It seems that this government is not distinguishing itself by sensitivity to labor issues.

The government says it wants to create a society based on work—this is what the prime minister keeps claiming. This is something well known to Italians from their history—I’m referring to the Italy of the early ‘30s, under the rule of Benito Mussolini. Despite all the rhetoric, the existing regulations in Hungary regarding the workforce, which are those contained in the Labor Code that came into force in 2012, are certainly not favorable to employees, and what is happening today is simply another confirmation of this trend.

How has your union reacted to all of this so far, and what does it plan to do to oppose the labor policies of the Orbán government?

We are marching day after day. On Dec. 8, the first march of protest organized by the trade unions took place. [Sunday] there [was] a new demonstration. Moreover, in recent days there have been initiatives throughout the country to block traffic and make our protest even more visible. All these initiatives are moving forward, also supported by students, who are the workers of tomorrow. [Saturday], László Kordas went to the residence of the Hungarian president to deliver a letter containing our request to send this law back to Parliament, but he was rebuffed. As a result we will turn to the European Commission to denounce the provisions of this law, which go against the European directives on working time. The various trade union organizations have set up a common coordination framework, which will evaluate the initiatives that we will implement in January, since the law is set to enter into force on the first day of next month. But if the president were to send the law back to Parliament, its entry into force would be delayed.

What has the reaction to this law been so far on the part of the workers and the general public?

A poll that we conducted showed that 86 percent of all workers are against this provision. According to another poll conducted this week, 81 percent of the general population is of the same opinion. Moreover, this law was passed without any real preliminary consultation with stakeholders. It is technically an amendment that was presented as an individual motion, which resulted in an improper use of parliamentary procedures, because, as I have already pointed out, it has not been subjected to a genuine consultation. This is a practice that Orbán has used many times in recent years.

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