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Viktor Orban introduces his new ‘slave law’

New legislation increases employees’ potential overtime from 250 to 400 hours per year

Image: European People's Party

THE WORKING WEEK– which all students face soon enough – may seem long here in the UK but it’s much  worse in Hungary.When students enter the world of work in the UK, they face a maxi-mum of 48 hours work per week. Over in Hungary, new legislation increases employees’ potential overtime from 250 to 400 hours per year. That’s the equivalent of an extra working day each week with no requirement for workers to be paid for up to three years. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Budapest last month to demonstrate against this so-called “slave law”. Opposition to the policy has come from a wide range of people in society, including student groups and political parties of both the left and right.Nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán insists the law is necessary to tackle labour shortages and an ageing population exacerbated by many young workers emigrating to Western Europe. In response, unions have threatened potential strike action.

Meanwhile, critics view the legislation as another cynical power-play by Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian regime. In recent years Orbán has taken a hard-line stance against immigration, including the construction of a border fence and criminalising anyone who attempts to help asylum seekers. Many also believe Orbán’s regime is compromising the independence of the press and the judiciary by stripping back essential checks and balances. Orbán’s strict control of the press meant that news outlets had to mostly rely on social media for coverage of the protests, as Hungarian national TV refused to cover the demonstrations.Since coming to power for the second time in 2010, Orbán has repeatedly blamed many ills of Hungarian society on the billionaire Jewish businessman, George Soros.

Despite widespread accusations that his government is peddling incendiary antisemitic tropes, Orbán has again claimed that those demonstrating against the overtime law in December were agents of Soros. In spite of the protests, Orbán’s hard-right Fidesz’s party still maintains strong support across large swathes of the population, particularly in rural areas. In elections last year, he managed to win two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Much of his support comes from those who admire his “strongman” image and his perceived ability to stand up to immigration from the Middle East.The threats to Orbán’s authoritarian rule come not only from internal dissent, but from the European Union. He has claimed previously that his desire is to turn Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”. Many believe his inward-looking, conservative regime to be the antithesis of the EU’s founding principles and contend that the EU should take a stronger stance against Hungary.As a member of the EU since 2004, Hungary relies heavily on trade with Europe, which accounts for 81 per cent of the country’s ex-ports. In September 2018, the EU voted to undertake disciplinary action against Hungary as a result of the country transgressing a number of its core values.

A suspension of voting rights is unlikely, because Orbán can rely on the conservative regime in Poland to veto any actions against him.Further demonstrations are planned by protesters through January, although Orbán maintains that the overtime legislation is largely optional and that his reforms are necessary in order to protect Hungary and grow the economy. 

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