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Transport workers in Hungary’s capital strike over service cuts

Transport workers in Budapest on Friday began a full-day strike aimed at pressuring the state-owned Budapest Transport Company (BKV) to withdraw planned service cuts that would likely lead to job losses.

Unions are concerned over the debt-ridden BKV’s cost-cutting plans, which could see up to 10 per cent of the Hungarian capital’s ageing public transport services cut. Despite aggressively hiking ticket prices, the company is around Ft 80 billion (about $489 million) in debt and runs at a permanent loss. The cuts are aimed at saving Ft 700 million this year and Ft 2.1 billion in 2009. BKV is struggling to keep its infrastructure up to date, and its fleet of buses, trams and metro trains are on the whole old and creaky.

The Budapest city council asked the government to help bail the company out as it had done in the past with about Ft 18.5 billion this year and similar amounts over the next two years. However, the government, which is in the middle of an economic reform period aimed at cutting its own massive budget deficit, has refused to help. Eleventh-hour talks aimed at averting the strike failed late Thursday despite promises from the city’s deputy mayors that a solution would be found to the financial crisis. Union leaders are demanding the planned cuts be modified to involve workers in drawing up a new plan that would minimize layoffs and also improve working conditions.

The strike is the second in recent weeks. The previous strike, which lasted half a day, saw Budapest brought to a virtual standstill with metros, trams and buses remaining stationary until early afternoon. Friday’s strike was expected to bring more chaos because workers were planning to stop work all day.

A survey by the independent pollster Szonda-Ipsos found that 32% of Budapest residents queried were planning to stay off work or keep their children home from school to avoid the expected traffic snarls. (m&