The ‘Slave Law’

by Georgina Davis

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues to ignore the EU’s commitment to democracy – and he seems to be getting away with it.

As the Hungarian Helsinki Committee has pointed out, many recent laws made in Hungary run ‘counter to values Hungary signed up to when it joined the European Union’; the repressive media law, the criminalization of the homeless, the threat to academic freedom, the ‘stop Soros’ campaign and now the new labour legislation dubbed the ‘Slave Law’.

The European Parliament did vote to trigger the EU’s article 7 procedures against Hungary’s governance and human rights violations and yet this rather toothless reaction has not led to any visible action. Orbán is clearly able to ignore these criticisms and he continues to cross democratic lines that allow him to cement his grip on power. But what can the EU do to trigger any effective procedure against Hungary? As Hungarian journalist Dóra Diseri states, ‘the red lines will be pretty flexible if Orbán can provide extra seats for the EPP, and as long as he makes sure German carmakers are given attractive deals’.

This seems particularly true when looking at the ‘slave law’, officially called the overtime law, which allows companies to demand up to 400 hours overtime from workers a year and then delay payment for up to three years. This law sparked large protests throughout Hungary, with turnouts as high as 15,000 people protesting in the snow and sub-zero temperatures. Protests not only occurred in Budapest but also outside the capital, where many factory workers live. Protests like these are something that Orbán has rarely had to contend with over the last nine years of his illiberal democracy and it is said to be the first time his government seems to be hesitating.

In reaction to the criticism of the ‘slave law’, however, the government has said that the law allows people to be more flexible as it removes the ‘bureaucratic rules, so that those who want to work and earn more can do so’, or, as Orbán puts it, ‘getting rid of the silly rules’. Of course, getting rid of these ‘silly rules’ allows the only winners to be the multinational corporations from richer EU countries like Germany, who will be able to maximize their profits by shifting more of their production into Hungary.

The slave law is clearly Orbán’s solution to the shortage of workers in Hungary; in recent years the country has experienced mass emigration with around 650,000 Hungarians now living abroad, meaning multinationals like German car manufacturers, could miss out on the cheap labour they were promised by him. This is the real reason for the law, not the supposed flexibility for workers that Orbán claims it to be. The reality is that workers from smaller towns and cities with fewer job prospects have little choice but to accept more working hours should their employers demand it.

The government is thus able to use the vulnerable positions many factory workers in Hungary face as a way of selling Hungary to these multinational companies – boasting incentives to them like ‘Cheap workers; 60% lower than EU average’, a quote found in a recent government-produced brochure. And it’s working. BMW, recently announced it will be building a €1billion factory in Hungary, joining Daimler and Audi there and boosting the country’s dependence on the car industry and thus its exposure to the expected slump in car sales during the expected global economic downturn in 2020/21.

Yet, the government fails to see these ‘cheap workers’ as vulnerable people who are struggling to pay bills because of their low wages. Gábor Guzlován is a factory worker who says he often has to choose between ‘water or electricity’ and talks of how the new law makes workers even more dependent on production demand, with companies being able to tailor how much they work (an so earn) based on their fluctuating needs. The resistance to the government’s actions has been strong but it is clear that the government is not looking after the interests of the workers. The law was clearly designed to benefit multinational companies like BMW, whilst eroding labour rights.

Zoltán Kovác, a government spokesperson, made the government’s position very clear in a recent statement in which he said that the term ‘slave law’ is ‘nonsense and stupidity’. When asked what he thinks of factory workers placed in such a vulnerable position because of this law, he simply replied: ‘this is market economy, go to the United States and talk to workers in their factories’.

As president of the Trade Union Confederation, László Kordás states, ‘the government and capital have squeezed their workers into a corner’ with no signs of concern for the overworked and underpaid factory workers rights. My question is, what will it take to push for effective action to take place within the EU or, as Diseri contends, will these ‘red lines’ continue to be ‘flexible’?