Protests Grip Hungary In Response To Overtime Measure That Critics Call A 'Slave Law'

Dec 16, 2018
Originally published on December 17, 2018 4:33 pm

Updated at 7:33 p.m. ET

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a darling of Europe's far right, has tightened his grip on power in ways that have shocked the European Union.

His ultranationalist Fidesz party has gamed the electoral system, shut down most independent media, forced out an American university and even created new administrative courts that will be directly controlled by the government.

But none of these measures have generated the type of outrage in Hungary that has greeted a new law that allows employers to ask staff to work up to 400 hours of overtime per year. Employers can delay these overtime payments for up to three years.

Critics call it the "slave law."

Thousands have protested every night outside parliament in Budapest since Fidesz lawmakers approved the measure on Wednesday. About 10,000 protesters marched to parliament on Sunday, waving Hungarian and European Union flags, and holding up hand-made banners. One read: "All I want for Xmas is democracy." One group of protesters also demonstrated outside the state-run TV headquarters. Media loyal to the government have largely ignored the protests.

"It's the first time I've seen signs that there's a united opposition building against Orbán," says Gábor Gyori, a senior analyst at the Budapest-based Policy Solutions think tank. "He did something that has upset a large segment of the population, even his own supporters."

A new poll by the Republikon Institute, a liberal think tank, shows that 63 percent of Orbán supporters disapprove of the new overtime law. More than 95 percent of his critics also disapprove.

Labor union leaders point out that Hungarians are already upset about low wages and poor workplace conditions. "And now to give employers, especially multinational companies who want even lower wages, so much more power over workers, it's very unfair," says László Kordás, head of the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation.

Just before parliament voted on the overtime law on Dec. 12, Orbán told lawmakers that it will help remove "bureaucratic rules" for workers who want to put in more hours and "earn more." The law allows employers to make individual contracts with workers, bypassing unions.

Hungary's unemployment rate is low, about 3.7 percent, partly because of an exodus of its skilled workers to other EU member states such as Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom, where wages are higher. Other countries with labor shortages often turn to immigrants, but Gyori says Orbán has been so vitriolic against immigration that "he's painted himself into a corner."

"Our population is shrinking," Gyori says. "This labor shortage will only get worse."

Kordás says Orbán and others in his party are clueless about working conditions for most Hungarians because most are "professional politicians who have never worked real jobs in the real world. They have no idea what actual working people have to go through."

The protests have gained steam partly because labor unions have joined forces with student activists at Central European University, which is leaving Hungary next year under pressure from Orbán, who has demonized its founder, billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and Hungarian-born Jew. (Soros' Open Society Foundations has contributed financially to NPR in the past.)

Orbán claims Soros was behind a conspiracy to "flood" Europe with Muslim asylum-seekers. The prime minister's allies are also blaming Soros for organizing the protests against the overtime law. Gergely Gulyás, Orbán's chief of staff, declared that the protesters display "open anti-Christian hatred."

Viktor Mak, a 26-year-old Hungarian-American student at CEU, says authorities are also claiming the protesters are dangerous.

"They are sending police to tear-gas us and they claim we're the ones who are violent," he says. "Everyone hates this law. Who wants to work overtime and not get paid for it for three years?"

One government minister, János Sül, quoted in the Hungarian website Pakspress.hu, said the young protesters have "never worked a day in their lives." A spokesman for Gulyás, the prime minister's chief of staff, said in an email to NPR that Orbán's critics are spreading lies about the law and that "any overtime permitted by the law can only be performed with voluntary employee consent."

Kordás, the union leader, rolls his eyes at the comment. "It's hard to make that argument when employers have all the leverage over their workers," he says.

Gyori, the political analyst, adds that there's also anger that Orbán's lawmakers rammed the law through parliament without consulting unions or the political opposition. Fidesz altered election rules so that the party controls two-thirds of parliament, even though it received only 49 percent of the popular vote in last spring's election.

As a result, opposition lawmakers are virtually powerless. They were reduced to blowing whistles and sirens and singing the Hungarian national anthem in an attempt to delay the vote on the overtime vote last week. The measure passed Hungary's parliament by a vote of 130 to 52 with one abstention.

"The problem with Orbán is that he fears the uncertainty that comes with democracy, so he stifles opposition to avoid the fallout of unpopular decisions," Gyori says. "He will do anything to avoid that uncertainty."

But some die-hard Orbán supporters say it's the protesters who are sowing uncertainty.

Kalman Molnar, a 93-year-old eye doctor, says he's never seen a Hungarian leader "as great as Viktor Orbán." As night fell, Molnar bundled himself in a greatcoat, pulled on his black beret, and shuffled toward the protests "out of curiosity."

"Even if 100,000 of them turned out, it wouldn't matter," he said, over the chants of the crowd. "They will always be the minority."

Freelance journalist Mate Halmos contributed reporting from Budapest.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, has done a lot to anger advocates for democracy across Europe. His party has rewritten the constitution, shut down most independent media and even created a parallel court system. Through it all, Orban has kept his grip on power. Now, though, Hungarians are riled up over a new law. It's about overtime pay. Joanna Kakissis reports from Budapest.

HANNA MIA KOVESDI AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hallelujah...

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hanna Mia Kovesdi and her best friend are singing at the Christmas market in Budapest for some extra cash. They're teenagers. They say they like Leonard Cohen, not politics. That all changed when the girls heard about Hungary's new labor law. It allows employers to ask their staff for an extra 400 hours of overtime per year and delay payment for up to three years. Hanna Mia Kovesdi thought about her mom.

HANNA MIA KOVESDI: She works so much because she leaves so early in the morning and gets home so late. She does it for so little amount of money, and it's so, so bad.

KAKISSIS: And her mom's a private school teacher. Kovesdi has friends whose parents work in lower-paying jobs at factories or shops or restaurants. She wants to know why politicians want to make them work even more.

HANNA: It's not normal what they do. It's not fair because everybody needs some time to just rest, and everybody needs time to be at home.

KAKISSIS: Now she's protesting along with lots of other Hungarians, like 54-year-old factory worker Pal Mikus.

PAL MIKUS: (Through interpreter) I am here because employers - they're trying to humiliate and exploit Hungarian workers. We are all here to unite.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Viktator, Viktator...

KAKISSIS: And they're uniting against their prime minister, Viktor Orban, the man these protesters call Viktator. That's Viktor and dictator together. A recent public opinion poll shows that most Hungarians disapprove of the overtime legislation which critics call the slave law. Union leader Laszlo Kordas says it shows that Orban and his party have lost touch with regular Hungarians.

LASZLO KORDAS: (Through interpreter) They've clearly never worked in the real world. They've been professional politicians since they got out of college. They don't understand that in a workplace today, employers have all the power, and their employees are badly paid and overworked.

KAKISSIS: Many Hungarians are leaving for jobs in other EU countries like Germany, where wages are better. So Hungary has a labor shortage. Other countries would just recruit immigrants, but Orban has built his political career on slamming immigration. So the prime minister took a risk. Political analyst Gabor Gyori explains.

GABOR GYORI: There is no way to get immigrants, and so then maybe the only way to get the necessary labor to keep the economy growing at the level where it does is to make people work longer. It's fine then. People will get over this.

KAKISSIS: Instead, thousands are angry enough to march in the cold. Orban's chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, calls the protesters vandals and has questioned their morals for demonstrating during the holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERGELY GULYAS: (Through interpreter) God save Hungary from this open hatred of Christianity and the contempt of Christmas on display.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Hungarian).

KAKISSIS: Yet the demonstrations continue. Some of the protesters hold handmade signs reading, we are Christians, too. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.