Protests have rocked Hungary after the passage of what labor activists call a “slave law,” which lets employers demand 400 hours of overtime and no pay for 3 years. Journalist Benjamin Novak says the opposition is in a rare moment of unity
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Ben Norton.
A wave of protests washing over Hungary in response to a new labor law that critics are calling the “slave law.” This new labor law will allow employers to demand up to four hundred hours of overtime from their employees every year, and in addition, it will allow those employers to delay payment for overtime by up to three years. The protests, however, are not just about the labor reforms. In addition, hundreds of independent media outlets, including newspapers and television channels, have been consolidated in the hands of pro-government billionaires, and opposition voices have been erased from the public discourse. On December 17, opposition members of parliament brought their protest to the state TV station, and despite their parliamentary immunity, they were attacked by security forces and forcefully ejected from the building.
Well, joining us to discuss the growing protest movement against the right wing Viktor Orban government is the journalist Benjamin Novak. Benjamin is based in Budapest, Hungary. He is a former senior correspondent for The Budapest Beacon and is now freelancing for a variety of outlets. Thanks for joining us, Benjamin.
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Thanks for having me.
BEN NORTON: So we had you on quite recently, in fact about a week ago, to talk about the consolidation of media control in Hungary and the kind of authoritarian bent that the country increasingly has. And now, in the past week, we’ve seen a massive eruption of protests. Of course, many of these protests are about what they’re calling the “slave law,” but others are simply about the consolidation of power by the Viktor Orban government. So can you respond to what you’ve seen in the past week with these enormous protests?
BENJAMIN NOVAK: In the middle of last week, the Hungarian National Assembly adopted a string of controversial bills. And this was the last session before they took a break for winter recess. Now, among these bills they adopted, one was the so-called “slave law,” which is a modification to labor regulations in Hungary, which as you pointed out, increases the cap of max overtime employers can require employees to work from two hundred fifty to four hundred hours per year. And it also allows for there to be a delay in payment for those overtime hours for up to three years. Labor unions are quite upset about this. But this wasn’t the only issue, the only bill that was voted on in Parliament last week. There was also the creation of a parallel court to be essentially administered by the government itself, and that is also quite controversial.
And so, you have very controversial bills that were adopted in Parliament last week, and they were adopted in a way where stakeholders felt they hadn’t been consulted with on this and they felt they were getting the short end of the stick. And so, in response to this, there have been a string of protests. These protests are not single issue protests, so what you see going out to these protests is that people are quite upset about the deterioration of media in Hungary, they are quite upset about this new labor law, they’re quite upset about the corruption. It’s a lot of young people out there, and a lot of young people at these protests have been telling me that they’re concerned that if Hungary continues down this path then they too will have to leave the country just as many hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have done since 2010 when the Orban government came to power.
So it’s a pretty complex and a very diverse protest. The opposition, for the first time in a very long time, has been able to unite together and frame a very strong message around this so-called “slave law.” And it seems that it is working. They’ve actually been able to keep this on the agenda. Just now, before we spoke, I read that the president of Hungary signed that law into force, so it’s now going to be a law officially. So it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens. Labor unions have announced that they are creating a strike committee, so we’re going to see some interesting things happen in the coming week.
BEN NORTON: Benjamin, can you talk about why they’re trying to push this bill through so fervently despite all the massive opposition? Specifically I’ve seen reports claim that one of the talking points used by the Orban government is that because the worker retirement rates are increasing and because workers are getting older on average, because the right wing government is so opposed to immigration, they’re saying that they need these labor reforms to keep the economy running and essentially force workers to work longer hours. So this is also interesting because there are other far right movements in the region, not just in Hungary. And in Hungary, we see the combination of these kinds of neoliberal economic reforms, whereas in other parts of Europe, we’ve also seen the rise of far right movements that maybe haven’t been as openly kind of neoliberal. Instead, they’ve appealed to a kind of economic nationalism. So maybe you can explain what the rationale is behind the law and what the economic policies are of the administration.
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Sure. So the rationale behind the law–and this is a fantastic question and I’ve always been very happy when people ask me about this. It wasn’t the government that submitted this law, this bill the parliament. It’s very important a very important piece of information here because there is a loophole in Hungarian law says if individual MPs submit bills to parliament. Those bills are not subject to what is called a public consultation where stakeholders are consulted with what the law would require. And so, what happened was it wasn’t the government that submitted the bill, but two ruling party MPs submitted the bill. Had the government opted to submit the bill, they would have had to engage in a public consultation with labor unions and other stakeholders, and that sometimes can be a very long and drawn out process.
Instead, what we saw was a bill that was submitted and then very quickly, within a matter of weeks, it was voted into law. The Hungarian government claimed that this law is necessary because German investors in Hungary have asked the government to create more favorable labor conditions to match their investments in Hungary. There is a shortage of skilled labor in this country. The labor force is getting older, a lot of young people and middle aged people are leaving to work in Western Europe, so they’re trying to–it’s very difficult to say. We don’t know the reason behind it exactly, but we can assume, based on the information we have at our disposal here that we employers need to be able to keep people working a lot.
BEN NORTON: And then, finally, in our previous interview, we discussed the kind of growing authoritarianism in Hungary where Viktor Orban is clamping down on dissent. These protests obviously suggest that there is actually a vibrant opposition. What is the state of the opposition and do you think this could portend changes in the future?
GREG WILPERT: Well, the opposition is quite small and divided. As you know, the ruling party in Hungary has a constitutional majority. They have two thirds of the Parliament, which means if they so decided, they could just write a new constitution tomorrow, have it adopted and not even having consulted the opposition about it. And that’s sort of what happened in in 2010 when this government came to power, back then also with the two thirds super majority in parliament. So the opposition is quite, quite fragmented, it’s quite small, and they’ve kind of been going at each other’s throats for the past few years, I mean, quite hostile towards each other. Until recently, and for the first time since I’ve been reporting on Hungary and this this labor law has been a catalyst for cooperation amongst opposition parties, they’ve kind of realized that this isn’t going to work if they’re fighting each other. And so, you have a law like this so-called “slave law,” which has kind of united these opposition parties.
Now, I’d like to point out here that last Sunday, there was a big protest in Budapest and the protesters marched from the steps of Parliament all the way, many kilometers in the freezing weather at night, out to the headquarters of Hungary’s state run media conglomerate. It’s the holding company for all the public media. And they went out there to protest against this other issue that you brought up, which is essentially media consolidation and the drowning out of what they believe are opposition independent voices. And MPs went with them and wrote up a list of demands and they demanded to go into public media and they wanted to read this list of demands on air. This list of demands included an immediate withdrawal of this so-called “slave law” overtime bill, it called for less overtime for police, it called for an independent judiciary, it called for Hungary to join the European public prosecution office and it called for independent public media.
Opposition MPs have not been able to read this list on air in public media in Hungary. In fact, the following day they camped out, about a dozen opposition MPs camped out inside the public media headquarters. They were restricted from even walking around inside there, despite them having the legal authority to do so as it is a public institution and they are members of parliament. And they were forcefully ejected. One man was very forcefully ejected, and eventually the police came on Monday and then removed all the MPs from the building. And so, that kind of gives you an idea as to how tightly controlled the media is, how important the ruling party sees media to accomplishing its objectives, when opposition MPs feel that they are simply blocked from sharing a message at a time, in a very rare time, when all of them are on the same page about something.
BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end our discussion there. We were speaking with Benjamin Novak who is a journalist and former senior correspondent for The Budapest Beacon. As this issue develops, we’ll have him on. Thanks for joining us, Benjamin.
BENJAMIN NOVAK: Thanks for having me. Bye bye.
BEN NORTON: For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.