Hungary: Latest developments in working life Q1 2019

A final round of protests regarding the overtime law and other anti-labour legislation, strikes and strike threats at industrial companies, and ongoing discontent in the public sector are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Hungary in the first quarter of 2019.

Overtime law protests continue into 2019

The adoption of a new overtime law in December 2018 generated an intense wave of protests. In early January, three trade union confederations (the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation (MASZSZ), the Forum for the Cooperation of Trade Unions (SZEF) and the Confederation of Unions of Professionals (ÉSZT)) published a list of demands that went beyond a request to overturn the overtime law. The demands included:

  • a general overhaul of the Labour Code
  • a revision of wages, including a two-digit raise for the minimum wage (instead of the 8% raise that was only approved by some of the negotiating trade unions)
  • an overhaul of the strike law
  • the return of substantive and regular social dialogue
  • more flexible retirement regulations, including the reintroduction of early retirement

The government refused to open negotiations about these demands, saying that the existing forums of social dialogue are sufficient and that it would not step into negotiations between the employer and employee sides. [1]

It became clear by the end of January that the majority of workers were not ready to engage in a general strike, especially as wage negotiations had already been concluded within many private companies. The final mass protest took place on 19 January, when more than 10,000 workers participated in countrywide demonstrations and roadblocks. However, the overall feeling of discontent and the increased visibility of unions contributed to a wave of sector-specific strikes and strike initiatives from late January onwards.

Resurgence of industrial action in the auto sector

The first strike occurred at Audi, a company where wages are above the Hungarian average but below those of Audi subsidiaries in other central European countries. The company offered a wage rise of 7% for 2019, with only 3% guaranteed for every worker. By contrast, the trade union Audi Hungaria Independent Trade Union (AHFSZ) called for a rise of 18% and subsequently began a week-long strike on 24 January. The strike severely disrupted the company’s supply chain and ended with Audi accepting the trade union’s demands.

This success inspired trade unions in other companies to lobby for better wages. Unsuccessful negotiations led to strike preparations at a number of car industry suppliers including Bosch, Denso, Continental, Hankook Tire, Wescast and SEG Automotive. The workers were primarily unhappy with the level of the wage rises offered by their companies or the fact that the proposed rises would have left many workers with much lower increases than others.

In several cases, the unions achieved victory soon after going on strike. The exception was at Hankook Tire, where the strike lasted for 10 days and the atmosphere grew increasingly hostile. Eventually, the trade union circumvented the local management and entered direct negotiations with delegates from Korea. This negotiation proved successful and a favourable compromise was reached. [2] 

The only unsuccessful strike took place at the SEG Automotive plant, which is located in northern Hungary. Wages are traditionally lower and labour shortages less frequent in this region than in other areas of the country, which increases the threat of prolonged unemployment. Despite this – and inspired by the response to an earlier token strike – the Trade Union of Employees Designed for Life (ÉTMOSz) commenced an open-ended strike. The strike was called off two days later because the participation rate was very low.

Discontent and strike preparations in the public sector

At the end of January, the SZEF led the launch of a National Public Service Strike Committee (OKSZ). The committee covers the majority of public service areas, with the exception of public healthcare.

The strike committee’s demands, presented on 21 March, focus on a general wage overhaul, including the linking of the lowest basic salaries to the minimum wage and a guaranteed minimum wage for skilled workers. [3] (At present, the basic salaries at the lower end of the public sector wage scales are often below the actual minimum wage and guaranteed wage minimum.)

The launching of the committee followed a sectoral one-day demonstrative strike by local and central government administration workers on 14 December 2018. [4] A general public sector strike is still in an early preparatory phase.

Outlook

While a more assertive trade union stance may spread to companies outside the automotive industry, it is unlikely to replicate itself beyond multinational companies because there are few trade unions in domestic private companies. It remains to be seen how long the increased interest in trade unions continues.

The OKSZ has not given a date for the planned public sector strike and the government is approaching the participating trade unions individually, instead of communicating with the joint committee. Any future public sector strike is likely to experience difficulties, given that the government was able to use administrative and legal means to halt a solidarity strike by teachers in December 2018.[5]

 


Footnotes

  1. ^ Magyar Idők (2019), Hivatalos fórumokon tárgyal a kormány , 14 January.
  2. ^ Mérce (2019), A szakszervezet szerint „térdre kényszerítették” a Hankookot a dunaújvárosi dolgozók , 22 March.
  3. ^ SZEF (2019), Az Országos Közszolgálati Sztrájkbizottság (OKSZ) levele a miniszterelnökhöz , 21 March.
  4. ^ Mérce (2019), Miért sztrájkolnak ma? , 14 March.
  5. ^ Menedzser Fórum (2019), Leállították a tanársztrájkot – bírósághoz fordul a szakszervezet , 14 March.

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