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Going Hungry in Hungary? Inside Their New Overtime Law

Going Hungry in Hungary? Inside Their New Overtime Law

It’s nicknamed “The Slave Law”. It’s the child of the ultraconservative, nationalist, and populist Fidesz party, which holds a majority in the National Assembly and is the party of Viktor Orbán. This law allows employers to ask workers to serve four hundred overtime hours a year, and employers may choose to delay the pay of said workers for three years. This means that, taken to its most extreme, a worker in Hungary could work 1,200 additional hours on top of their existing work schedule before seeing any bit of money in compensation. A poll by the Republikon Institute, a liberal leaning study group, found that 63 percent of Orbán’s own supporters disapprove of the new overtime law. Over 95 percent of Orbán critics disapproved, forming a sizeable population of Hungarians infuriated by this move.

Why this topic is so highly contested in Hungary is likely because work conditions are already so poor. Their minimum wage roughly translates to about $530 per month, or $6,360 per year. In the United States, a person earning minimum wage and working forty hours a week would earn $15,080 per year, and this mark is barely above the poverty line for a single person household. It is important to remember that the cost of living in Europe is usually less than the United States, as more government assistance is provided, so this is not a direct comparison, but it is still a sizeable gap. Orbán has marketed this new labor law as a solution to the low wage problem, not an addition, citing the ability of employees to work more hours and earn more money. However, with the three year time limit on being compensated for this work, workers might not see more pay for an extremely long time. Companies in multiple nations see a sizeable benefit from this law, as they can pay wages much lower than surrounding countries by holding off pay for a significant amount of time. I could not confirm this, but there is no mention in any political discourse of this extra pay collecting interest over time or adjusting for inflation, so in tumultuous economic climates as we have seen in recent years, when that pay is finally received, it might be worth way less than it was when it was initially earned.

Another problem that Hungary has is labor shortages, arguably a problem of their own creation. Hungary has a low unemployment rate (about 3.7 percent) because the European Union allows skilled workers to move across borders to find work. This is why Brexit negotiations are so tricky; many people work across state lines, allowing labor shortages to be filled and benefiting all member countries. Hungarian workers have been leaving to work in Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom, where wages are higher, something that will only increase once this new law takes effect. Immigration usually fills gap in unskilled labor positions, where the shortage is in Hungary, but Orbán has been so vocally anti-immigration, few immigrants settle in the country.

The opposition to Orbán remains strong mainly due to support from two main parties. Labor unions, of course, oppose the law because it also allows companies to bypass unions when signing contracts with employees and worsens quality of life for several workers. Student activists at Central European University have been the other major players in these protests, since they already have a beef with Orbán after he forced them out of the country, effective early this year. Orbán wants the university to leave because he has publicly announced his hatred for the founder, George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist and Hungarian-born Jewish man who survived the Holocaust. Orbán also blames Soros for the protests, thinks Soros is behind an influx of Muslim immigrants meant to “flood” Europe, and his chief of staff has declared these protests are an example of “open anti-Christian hatred”.

So, how would upset Hungarians be able to elect representatives that won’t pass such laws? First, they’re going to have to win by large numbers in the next election. Fidesz controls two-thirds of parliament while only receiving 49 percent of the vote, likely because of their enforcement and enactment of strict election laws before the previous election to strip money from opposition campaigns and used state media to promote their message. The remaining opposition is powerless, demonstrating their disgust with this law by blowing whistles and singing the Hungarian national anthem to delay the vote as long as possible, knowing they can’t win this fight. The European Union watches Hungary, but only from a distance, as they have made no attempt to block any of Orbán’s legislation with anything stronger than a light tap on the wrist. Workers in Hungary continue to strike because that’s the only voice they have left. And they will work overtime to secure what limited rights they still have to live a quality life.

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