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Workers’ Interest vs. “Slave Law”: Chaos, Protests and Scandals Accompany Final Vote

Ábrahám Vass 2018.12.13.

On Wednesday, the National Assembly officially accepted the modifications made to the employment bill—which many have dubbed the “slave law.” Although government officials insist the new regulations will be beneficial, trade unions and opposition parties have begun protesting what they view as a blatant exploitation of the workforce. In the weeks leading up to today, several opposition MPs attempted to prevent the acceptance of the bill.

Three weeks ago, Fidesz MPs Lajos Kósa and Kristóf Szathmáry introduced a law that would raise the upper threshold for annual overtime from 250 to 400 hours. In addition, employers would only have to compensate employees for overtime every three years instead of every 12 months. In the future, the weekly work time frame could be raised to 48 hours. When questioned about the motivation behind the controversial move, the government claimed it “would like to dismantle these bureaucratic obstacles given that [Fidesz] is the government of job-creation.” The government defends the action, insisting that the modifications will allow those who wish to work and earn more money to do so without getting tangled up in red tape.

Opposition MPs have heavily criticized the law, going so far as to label it “anti-family and anti-life” and “unprofessional and unfounded.” According to critics, the bill would “stealthily” introduce a six-day work week—a reference to the six-day “Communist Saturdays” system applied during socialism. Many worry that the extension of the compensation period would lead to potential injustices and abuses.

Lajos Kósa. Image via Attila Kovács/ MTI

Even the initial general debate was packed with fierce criticism and controversy. The majority of Fidesz MPs—including one of the presenters of the bill, Kristóf Szathmáry—failed to attend. Later in the meeting, Deputy House Speaker and Fidesz MP Sándor Lezsák began excluding opposition MPs for allegedly “repeating previous arguments,” and then unilaterally brought the debate to a close, leaving certain MPs unable to voice their opinions.

Govt to stick to its original draft

However, the government appeared to be backtracking the next day. Kósa announced that an increase in overtime hours would only be possible with employee consent. Just minutes later in his weekly press briefing, PMO Chief Gergely Gulyás claimed the government would not support the extension of the compensation period to three years. Later, however, Kósa made it clear that the government would stick to the essential points of the original draft, with only minor exceptions.

In its current accepted form, the bill allows for 250 hours of overtime per year without restrictions (this can be increased to 300 via collective agreement). With a written agreement between the employer and employee, this number can be further increased to 400. Many fear that employees won’t be able to hold their own against their employers, especially now that trade unions are being excluded from the process. Contrary to what Gulyás claimed, the three year compensation period would be optional. In addition, the bill could potentially increase work hours from 40 to 48 per week, meaning that the work week would essentially be one day longer.

These modifications are far from what trade unions find acceptable. As a result, the trade unions held a demonstration in front of the Parliament last Saturday. Vasas Trade Union Confederation is now organizing half-track road closures in several cities outside the capital and Audi Hungarian Independent Trade Union (AHFSZ) took part in the demonstration in Győr.

Demonstration of trade unions on Saturday. Image via Zsolt Szigetváry/ MTI

Many have speculated that economic actors—among them giant German automotive companies—may have played a role by pushing for more flexible employment laws. Two weeks ago, FM Szijjártó seemed to confirm this belief when he told journalists in Düsseldorf that North Rhine-Westphalian companies had been urging the government to provide them with the necessary workforce. On Wednesday, Minister for Innovation and Technology László Palkovics even admitted that economic operators had requested a change to overtime regulations.

On Tuesday, PM Orbán said, “he is paying attention to trade unions, but that they are not right about this issue.” The PM insisted that though the law may not be in the interest of trade unions, it is in the interest of the workers, and the government always sides with the workers. Orbán also repeated Palkovics’ claim that employers will respect their employee’s preferences due to the labor shortage.

Chaotic final vote

On Tuesday, opposition MPs tried to filibuster the vote by submitting 2,925 amendment proposals. In response, pro-government lawmakers passed a decision to vote on all amendments in one single vote. After the opposition proposals were rejected, opposition lawmakers disrupted the plenary session by booing and whistling. Likewise, Wednesday’s parliamentary session got off to a similarly turbulent start.

Image: Tímea Szabó- Facebook via 24.hu

In an interview with left-liberal weekly HVG earlier in the day, Lajos Kósa said that “a moment of justice would come” in January as people will discover their work-week is still just five days long. He added that employees will receive their salaries (including allowances and compensation for overtime) at the beginning of the month. Kósa insists that the opposition will soon see their claims disproved.

At the beginning of Wednesday’s session, opposition MPs blocked the presidential pulpit in an attempt to prevent the House Speaker from opening the meeting. László Kövér, however, managed to open the session from his seat using a microphone. When KDNP MP János Latorczai took over the leadership of the session, Fidesz MPs—among them Cabinet chief Antal Rogán, PM Viktor Orbán and Gergely Gulyás—surrounded Latorczai in order to prevent opposition MPs from reaching him and disrupting the session. Amid whistles and boos, the ruling alliance managed to vote on the modifications.

To be continued…

Opposition MPs doubt the fairness of the vote as it recently came to light that MPs were able to vote without having to insert their MP identity cards into the voting machine, something that is normally impossible. This leaves the vote vulnerable to fraud. The case will likely continue as opposition MPs have threatened to take legal action.

Afterward, Kövér stated that what happened in the session was “a parliamentary coup attempt,” and promised that all opposition politicians involved in attempting to prevent the vote would be prosecuted.

Image via Balázs Mohai/ MTI

In a joint press conference held after the vote, opposition MPs claimed that they would not stop there. Párbeszéd co-chair Tímea Szabó asserted that, with this step, Orbán turned against his country. She referred to the “voluntary overwork” as “a big lie.” Vice president of Jobbik Márton Gyöngyösi claimed that the vote broke both the law and the rules of the house. Párbeszéd MP Olivio Kocsis-Cake said that if Kövér seeks punishment, they will turn to the Strasbourg court.

Afterward, demonstrators gathered at Kossuth square and elsewhere, but the heavy police presence prevented the demonstrations from turning very violent.

featured image via Tibor Illyés/ MTI