29th Sep 2023

What's causing Hungary's 'revenge law' protests?

  • A demonstration against the 'revenge law' from May. The law will come into force in January, and those teachers who do not agree to the change in status will not be allowed to continue working in Hungarian public education (Photo: PDSZ)
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On Tuesday (4 July), the Hungarian parliament passed a new education law, in a 136-58 vote, that will lead to a worsening of teachers' working conditions, mass resignations — and a possible 'brain drain'.

Over the past 18 months, Hungary's teachers, students and other members of civil society have been raising their voices against poor pay and heavy workloads.

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A first warning strike took place across many Hungarian schools in January 2022, and then a general strike was announced for mid-March.

The Orbán government then issued a decree making it almost impossible for teachers to go on strike — using the declared state of emergency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Protests continued to grow, and some teachers were dismissed for civil disobedience, according to Telex, an independent Hungarian news outlet.

In October, Gergely Gulyás, a minister in the prime minister's office, announced a series of wage increases between now and 2025. However, there was an important condition attached — they will only apply if or when the EU unblocks the EU bailout funds for Hungary.

After this, the draft bill was published at the beginning of March 2023.

Critics dubbed it the 'revenge law', and since its publication, demonstrators have been demanding its withdrawal.

"The law is a step backwards from the rights perspective," said Erzsébet Boros, head of the Hungarian Trade Union of Public Employees (MKKSZ) and vice-president of the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI).

MEP Katalin Cseh (from the liberal Renew Europe group) also described it as "a brutally repressive tool designed to stifle dissent and control the education system, depriving students of an education and a future".

What appears to be a technical adjustment, a change of status from public employee to public education employee, is far more than that, as it implies the loss of some protections and autonomy as workers.

Behind this 'minor' change, there is an increase in the maximum working hours, a possible extension of the school year to up to one month, or a reduction in the trade unions' bargaining power, among other things.

The 'revenge law' will come into force next January, and those teachers who do not agree to the change in status will not be allowed to continue working in Hungarian public education.

"The law mandates that teachers cannot discuss problems or criticise the system without facing disciplinary action, even on their private social media accounts," Cseh told EUobserver.

Food prices rocketed, wages stagnated

Hungary's public education system was already suffering from staff shortages before this saga, and at least 5,000 teachers have committed to resign if the law is passed.

The increase in the maximum working time is an attempt to make up for the shortage of staff, trade unions say. The new law allows the total working time to exceed eight hours to a maximum of 48 hours per week. The limit on the number of hours that can be worked by stand-in teachers has also been raised.

Meanwhile, Hungary has one of the lowest salaries for public school teachers, as of 2020/2021. The average gross pay across European countries was €25,055. In Hungary it was €8,063.

The pay gap can also be seen at domestic level, as similarly-qualified positions in the public sector earn much more than teachers.

The new package of restrictive measures hardly makes the profession attractive to the newer generations. "The young people will probably go abroad," says Boros.

Over the past decade, teachers have seen little increase in their salaries. MKSSZ told EUobserver that teachers, who collectively all have a tertiary education, earn almost the same as those with less years spent in education.

With the cost of living crisis, food prices have risen by up to 45 percent over the year in Hungary, and the Hungarian inflation rate is around 25 percent, according to Eurostat.

So the loss of purchasing power is another major factor fuelling the protests and increasing the pressure on Hungarian workers to take action.

Unions such as MKKSZ are intending to take the matter to the country's Constitutional Court, if necessary, before moving further towards the EU.

Momentum, Cseh's party has called on the European Commission to include the demands of these teachers and students as a condition that Hungary must meet before receiving EU funds.

But the unions want to try to solve the problem domestically first, and as soon as possible.

"We can't wait [for the EU to act]", Boros concluded.


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