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President Áder signs overtime law; strikes threatened

The governmentʼs controversial amendment to labor laws affecting overtime hours - dubbed the "slave law" by critics - is ready to go into effect from January 1, 2019, after President of the Republic János Áder signed the bill into law on Thursday. More protests are planned, while unions have threatened strikes beginning in the New Year.

The legislation raises the permitted maximum overtime allocable by employers from 250 hours to 400 hours per year, and extends the period employers may account overtime for the purpose of calculating wages and rest days from 12 months to three years.

In a statement on the website of the Office of the President of the Republic, Áder explained that he had examined the legislation from three aspects: first, to determine that it did not clash with the provisions of the Fundamental Law (Hungaryʼs constitution); second, to compare it with legislation in other European countries, where he found that overtime hours in numerous countries - among them the U.K., Denmark, Ireland, and the Czech Republic - match or even exceed Hungaryʼs; and third, to look at how the change would impact four and a half million employees in Hungary, and whether guarantees serving their protection would be reduced in strength.

In his review of the legislation, Áder established that the amended Labor Code requires the written consent of workers before raising their overtime, and prohibits employers from sanctioning employees who do not agree to work overtime or withdraw their previous consent to work overtime.

Deviations from the new rules are allowed under collective contracts, but only if they serve the advantage of the employee, the president noted, adding that employers must remunerate employees for overtime according to the same conditions they have until now, and in no way do the new rules restrict the opportunity for unions to ensure even greater protection in collective contracts.

Protests mushroom

The controversial changes have triggered a series of demonstrations since the law was passed on December 12 by the governmentʼs two-thirds majority amid chaotic scenes in Parliament. The protests, which have also been directed against Parliamentʼs simultaneous approval of legislation setting up a new system of administrative courts - which critics argue violates the separation of powers and puts the independence of the judiciary at direct risk - have spread to other Hungarian cities and even abroad.

Protestors have also called attention to growing government control over the media, calling for an end to what opposition critics have described as the "party-state propaganda" disseminated by government-controlled state television, as well as to the governmentʼs refusal to join the European Public Prosecutorʼs Office, to be set up shortly as an independent body of the European Union.

Several days of opposition and trade union-led protests culminated in a large anti-government demo last Sunday night, with protestors marching from outside Parliament to the headquarters of state broadcaster MTVA. Having stayed on the premises overnight as part of a group of opposition parliamentarians in an unsuccessful attempt to have a list of demands read on air, two independent MPs were forcefully ejected from the building.

Under the initial title "Ne írd alá, János!" (Donʼt sign, János!) - since changed to Szégyelld magad, János! (Shame on you, János!), in light of the presidentʼs signing of the bill into law - a broad range of political and civil groups have called a fresh demonstration on Kossuth Lajos tér outside Parliament this Friday, starting 8 p.m.

According to the Facebook page at time of writing, the demo is supported by a variety of parties, groups, and individual politicians, including the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation (MASZSZ), Momentum, the Liberals, the Democratic Coalition (DK), Párbeszéd and Jobbik, Socialist Party President Bertalan Tóth, and independent MPs Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, the two former LMP co-presidents who were thrown out of the TV building.

Strikes threatened

At the most recent demonstration outside the MTVA building on Monday night, notes online news portal index.hu, MASZSZ Vice President Tamás Székely warned that "if Áder signs the slave law, the organization of strikes will begin."

Earlier on Wednesday, index.hu published summaries that revealed the growing breadth - and hitherto missing unity - of opposition to the governmentʼs policies, both at home and abroad.

It cited protests hosted variously by opposition parties, unions and civil organizations in Miskolc, Szombathely and Sopron on Tuesday; in Nyíregyháza, Debrecen, Eger and Vác on Wednesday; in Kecskemét, Miskolc and Békéscsaba on Thursday; a demo organized by Jobbik in Kaposvár on Friday; and an additional demo announced by Momentum in Debrecen at the start of January. Larger protests are planned in the New Year by various parties, index.hu added, noting that the period between Christmas and the New Year is unlikely to prove a fertile time for getting people out on the streets.

Index.hu also reported on small protests held by Hungarians living in various cities abroad, including Dublin, Reykjavik, Hanover, Bremen, Leipzig, Copenhagen, Vienna, Stuttgart, Edinburgh, Paris, Munich and Zürich. It also noted a standing protest outside the Hungarian embassy in Brussels, set to run from last Monday until Christmas.