Eva Vatai, a French teacher in a high school in Pécs, in the south of Hungary, cannot believe it. She was recently stripped of 5% of her salary – 16,700 Ft (44 €) out of a net monthly salary of 300,000 Ft (790 €) – after refusing to go to work in protest against the working conditions in her profession, in February 2022. She and her colleagues describe the measures taken as “civil disobedience”, as they are unable to fully exercise their right to strike under current legislation in Hungary.
Nearly 30 percent of teachers took part in one of the largest mobilizations in recent years, according to the democratic teachers’ union PDSZ (Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezetének). It all started on January 31, 2022, when some 20,000 teachers held a preventive stop of two hours, accompanied by a procession, calling for the defeat of the government in the April legislative elections, among other solidarity actions. On March 16, the two main teachers’ unions in Hungary, the PDSZ and the PSZ (Pedagógusok Szakszervezete), again went on strike for more than two weeks, after five months of fruitless negotiations with the government.
Their demands were linked to low wages and deteriorating working conditions in the sector. Hungary is second to last in terms of teachers’ salaries in the European Union. This explains the shortfall of almost one in two mathematics teachers, for example, according to the specialist think tank T-TUDOK. Staffing shortages are worsening as more teachers leave schools to earn a better living in catering and retail, at a time when schools are dealing with an influx of refugee students from ‘Ukraine.
“We cannot work in such conditions. For 15 years, I have seen the ship sink in education and I refuse to be silent, ”says Éva Vatai who, after 40 years in the profession, admits that her salary is three times lower than that of her son, who works like a carpenter. She explains:
“Viktor Orbán has no educational policy, except to impose nationalist writers on the school curriculum. It overloads us, infantilizes us and humiliates us. Teachers and students lost their motivation.
There was a 10% salary increase for teachers in January 2022, a few weeks before the elections, “except that it was not a salary increase, but bonuses”, explains Erzsébet Nagy, president of the PDSZ, who calls for a 45 per cent wage increase “to reach the 2021 minimum wage, because we are currently indexed to the 2014 minimum wage”, continues the trade unionist. A wage increase is all the more necessary given the surge in inflation in Hungary, with experts predicting a price increase of more than 10% in the coming weeks.
“It was a great experience. It was the biggest mobilization of my life, we received a lot of solidarity from students and parents, who did not send their children to school. The strike has been supported by several events across the country.The artist collective noÁr produces the rap song We want to learn!describing the difficulties of teachers, and a website, Ne dolgozz ingyen! (Don’t Work for Free!), was created to denounce unpaid overtime.
For Éva Vatai, the momentum was unfortunately lost with the re-election of Viktor Orbán for the third consecutive time in April 2022, temporarily bringing civil society and the opposition to a halt, and leaving the teachers’ unions unwilling to ‘to act. again before the end of the school year.
Strike made illegal by the government
Eva Vatai chose to engage in civil disobedience in February – an action not supported by the unions but followed by several hundred schools across the country – because the strike announced in December by the PDSZ and the PSZ was judged illegal.
On what grounds? A minimum service clause in public services introduced by the Orbán administration in 2010, amending the 1989 law on the right to strike. “This legislation has changed everything, because it obliges the parties to agree on a minimum service. And until the courts have issued a final decision on the matter, the strike is illegal,” explains Erzsébet Nagy. “The court can ask the parties questions and this process can take weeks. This is exactly what happened with the mobilization of January 31, which was deemed illegal, because the judgment on appeal was delayed”, adds the trade unionist, who clearly sees in it a desire to purely and simply discourage all strikes.
Another nebulous area of minimum service rules in Hungary is that it remains unclear which professions must comply with them. “Education is not mentioned in the professions listed in the law”, pleads Erzsébet Nagy. Judit Zeller, a lawyer for the Hungarian civil liberties union TASZ, also finds this concept of minimum service problematic. “The education sector has already had to end a strike in the past because no agreement was reached with the government, even in court. Furthermore, in Hungary, several court decisions have considered education as one of the sectors that must provide a minimum service, in the same way as public transport or energy companies. And yet, according to the International Labor Organization, education is exempt from the minimum service requirement. As long as the children’s safety and meals are guaranteed, the teaching itself is not compulsory,” adds Zeller.
The government, with the help of its media mouthpieces, including public service broadcasting, has consistently demonized the strikers. “We ask the unions not to cause chaos, not to incite teachers to break the law, we ask them to wait for the final response from the court and to postpone the strike,” the education ministry said in a statement. a press release in January. After the strike, the same ministry greeted the “teachers who considered that a strike was not necessarily appropriate while the neighboring country is at war and that children who arrive in Hungary must be taken care of”.
Following the onset of the pandemic and the establishment of the state of emergency, the Hungarian government granted itself the power to govern by decree, a power which it used in February 2022 to further regulate minimum services.
As the state of emergency came to an end on June 1, 2022, parliament rushed to turn the February decree into a legislative amendment. Adopted on May 24, the legislation now requires teachers preparing high school students for the baccalaureate to provide 100% of their lessons. The minimum service required is set at 50% for non-baccalaureate students and provisions must be made for the care of children in schools.
“Since when do you have to do 100% of the lessons when you go on strike? says Erzsébet Nagy, convinced that the amendment and the decree that preceded it are not constitutional. His union has lodged an appeal with the Hungarian Constitutional Court and is ready to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
“The right to strike has been totally inapplicable in Hungary since 2010. Before, it wasn’t necessarily easy to put pressure on your employer, but it wasn’t impossible; the railway workers managed to do it for example, but since then it is no longer possible”, explains Boros Péterné, head of the union of civil servants and public employees MKKSZ (Magyar Köztisztviselők, Közalkalmazottak és Közszolgálati Dolgozók Szakszervezete). “Our social sector workers, for example, have been trying for two years to strike, but they cannot because the government, which is our negotiating partner, demands a minimum service of 100%, which makes it impossible to exercise the right to strike. We have been to court five times for the same case, to no avail. The government is abusing the minimum service obligation and the courts are helping it to do so”, laments the trade unionist who warns: ” These employees will end up leaving the sector massively, which could jeopardize the quality of public service.
Systematic rights violations
Hungary is definitely one of the worst countries in Europe when it comes to trade union rights and labor laws. In 2019, Viktor Orbán sparked a major wave of protests in the country by deregulating overtime. According to the IInternational Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index 2021, Hungary is in category four (out of six), where rights violations are considered to be systematic. “The collective rights of healthcare workers have been restricted with the prohibition of any future collective agreements from January 2021, while all collective agreements concluded so far have expired on the same date”, reports the ITUC. The pandemic has been used as a pretext for the government to restrict the rights of healthcare workers, even preventing them from speaking out in the media about the pandemic.
The restriction of the right to strike is a violation of Article 3 of Convention 87 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise, ratified by Hungary in 1957. The Committee of ILO experts on the application of Conventions and Recommendations are also concerned about this tightening of the screws in its 2022 reporttaking note of the observations received on 1 September 2017 from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), alleging acts of intimidation, anti-union dismissals and anti-union practices in several companies.