Hungarian workers rebel against overtime “slave law”
While the eyes of class-conscious workers in Australia have been focussed on the continuing “yellow vests” movement in France in recent weeks, a significant movement led by the working class has broken out in Hungary.
The right-wing, overtly fascist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban decided to introduce a law under which employers could compel workers to undertake up to 400 hours of overtime per year, up from the current limit of 250 hours. It is the equivalent of an extra 2 hours per day, or a six-day week.
The overtime can be accumulated over three years before an employer is required to pay for it, meaning that anyone leaving a particular job of his or her own accord or otherwise within this timeframe risks losing their entitlements.
Mass protests in Budapest challenge the regime
Orban faced protests by tens of thousands of angry workers in early December, but his Fidesz party has an overwhelming majority in the parliament and he was able to get the law passed easily. It was subsequently ratified by the country’s President in the face of fresh and sometimes violent protests.
Those protests have grown – some participants have worn yellow vests to signify their support for and identity with the French workers’ movement. Hungarian youth are also involved, with university students calling for an alliance of workers and students.
Capitalist governments: same class interests, same songbook
Orban’s arguments in support of the law seem eerily familiar to students of Australia’s industrial relations laws. According to Orban, no-one can force the workers to do overtime: employees must give written consent and wouldn't be penalised for refusing extra hours. We know from our own bitter experience that the argument that an employee and an employer can sit at a negotiating table as social equals is a compete furphy – it was one of the reasons that we rejected Howard’s WorkChoices.
Orban also argues that the move benefits those workers who want to earn more by working harder. He explained that the point of the law was to "abolish unnecessary regulations so that those who want to earn more are able to".
This is the same sort of nonsense put forward by our government in its drive to abolish penalty rates. Same class interests, same songbooks.
The reality is that Hungary is the lowest wage country in Europe, and that under EU freedom of movement laws, thousands of young and skilled workers have left for other countries with higher wages. Hungary's population has been in decline for years, as deaths outpace births, according to the European statistics agency. Orban argues that the overtime changes will reverse the brain drain, but this is specious – more likely is that major corporations that have come to Hungary in search of low waged workers are simply demanding more surplus value to be squeezed from the Hungarian proletariat. Those corporations include major German auto manufacturers Audi and Daimler, which produces Mercedes-Benz, and BMW, all of which have moved their factories to Hungary.
“We are all really upset about the way things are going in this country,” Zoltan Laszlo, vice chairman of the Vasas Ironworkers union, told Reuters. “This government just makes laws with scant consultation of those affected.”
“Our health status is already abysmal. People who make these kinds of laws work against society. We’ll show them that we can take our fate into our own hands. We are willing to turn a lot harsher.”
It is possible for a genuine Left to emerge as protests grow.
Hungary has a combined Unity Opposition representing social-democratic and liberal parties. There is also an even more right-wing party, Jobbik, which has become the second largest party after Fidesz. Jobbik has taken to the streets to oppose the “slave law” and boost its support amongst confused and demoralised workers.
There is a small Hungarian Workers’ Party affiliated to the revisionist International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties. It has issued a call to “Enlighten people, open their eyes, mobilize them to fight”.
There is also the Magyar Ifjúság Közösségi Szervezete (Organisation of Hungarian Youth Community), affiliated to the International Coordination of Revolutionary Parties and Organisations (ICOR).
It will be no easy task for Hungarian communists to try to lead a mass movement in a country where right-wing nationalism and bitter memories of Soviet social-imperialism remain a potent force. However, if workers there are indeed prepared to “take our fate in our own hands”, conditions will exist for revolutionaries and communists to expand and grow.