Inside Hungary: When Overtime Becomes Slave-like Labor

Inside Hungary: When Overtime Becomes Slave-like Labor

Inside Hungary: When Overtime Becomes Slave-like Labor

In Hungary, laborers who are pushed to their limit, working up to 400 hours of overtime, may not see compensation for up to three years, if ever. Thousands have been protesting an overtime labor law passed in Hungary on December 12, 2018, a country where such demonstrations are rare. Workers are standing up against what they see as the increasingly authoritarian and right-wing nationalist rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Protestors believe Orban passed this law in an abuse of power, bypassing normal parliamentary procedure to enact a law legalizing overtime labor that many have compared to slave labor.

The new law states that companies can demand up to 400 hours of overtime per year (which is equal to 50 extra 8-hour days per year). This is an increase of 150 hours from the already high previous limit of 250 hours of annual overtime. While this amount of work can be problematic to the health of a workforce, the stipulation that has protestors comparing this law to slave labor is that companies can delay payment for overtime hours for up to three years (increased from the previously legal one year maximum). Labor Economist Janos Kallo warns, “given the three-year remuneration period, there [is] a risk that companies could go bankrupt before employees [are] paid for overtime work”.

The law also includes an amendment that allows employers to make overtime agreements directly with workers. With this arrangement, collective bargaining and unions (established to protect workers from being intimidated into unfair agreements) are bypassed completely, allowing for predatory labor agreements to be made with little regulation or oversight.

For comparison, in countries where there is an annual overtime limit, the average maximum number of overtime hours that can be worked in a year is approximately 147 hours.* Some countries on the higher end of this threshold include: Haiti (at 300 hours/year), Finland (250 hours/year), Italy (250 hours/year), and Benin (240 hours/ year). Whereas the following countries have particularly low maximum annual overtime hours: Guinea-Bissau (45 hours/ year), Ivory Coast, (75 hours/year), Mali (75 hours/ year), and Spain (80 hours/year). The law’s stipulation that allows employers to delay overtime payment for up to three years is unique to Hungary.

This law is wildly unpopular, with a recent think-tank poll finding that 83% of Hungarians are against the law. Victor Oban defends the labor law as a saving grace for Hungary’s current labor shortage. This labor shortage is caused by a decline in Hungary’s population (deaths outpace births in Hungary), with unemployment rates falling to 3.6%. Orban, who has been touting xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment since he announced his intention to run for prime-minister, has opted to expose his constituency to slave-like labor conditions rather than address the labor shortage in Hungary with immigration incentives or by opening borders to refugees.

Overworked workforces are a global epidemic. Excessive overtime is damaging to workers’ health, shown to cause significantly increased physical and mental health problems and, in severe cases, can lead to death. In addition to health concerns,  when these long hours of overtime do not even come with timely reimbursement–legal labor turns into slave-like labor. Hungary is just one example of how autocratic rulers infringe on workers rights with unfair or slave labor laws.

* The countries included in this average are only countries with annual overtime limits. Many countries that have daily or weekly limits have been omitted from this average.  

For more blogs on countries where autocratic governments’ laws place citizens in slavery conditions, click on the following links:

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons (Derzsi Elekes Andor)