Hungary's 'Slave Law' Has Sparked Huge Street Protests

Thousands of people have marched through Budapest, with one protester carrying a sign reading "All I Want For Christmas Is Democracy."

Demonstrations are now threatening to enter their second week, against Hungary passing what's been dubbed the 'slave law'.

The new legislation will allow companies to increase workers' overtime by up to 400 hours a year.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban claims the labour law will allow people to earn more money, but critics believe it's a sign of increasing authoritarianism.

Protesters have been demonstrating for a full week. Image: Reuters

While the law is voluntary and negotiated on a personal, rather than union level, there are concerns workers could be talked into or even threatened to deliver.

Professor of International Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University, Umut Korkut, said it's a noticeable change for the Fidesz government, who came into power on a strong anti-privatisation and pro-nationalist agenda.

"It looks as if the government is trying to keep the promises it's made to multinationals and foreign investors, such as the car industry," Korkut told 10 daily.

He believes Orban's government, which enjoys strong public support after being re-elected for the third time in April, likely considered itself to be at the "climax" of power.

Viktor Orban's ruling party is unlikely to lose its popularity over the protests, after being re-elected for their third term. Image: Reuters

Denes Hubicsak, an engineer, has been part of almost all the protests since they began on December 12.

“I’m here because I want to live here in 10 years’ time as well,” the 24-year-old told Reuters.

“Many people here are protesting because of the slave law now, but they sometimes forget the other one: the law about administrative courts.”

The second controversial law will set up new courts controlled by the justice minister, which critics say could lead to political meddling.

Image: Reuters

Korkut said while Hungary has seen a few instances of unrest, it's the first time tear gas has been widely used.

Earlier, two independent MPs were thrown out of the state TV building by security.

The pair were among about a dozen MPs who demonstrated alongside thousands gathered outside, claiming public networks had become a government mouthpiece.

Protesters held up banners reading "TV has lost its public television character".

They faced hundreds of police, who later fired tear gas into the crowds.

Image: Reuters

Korkut said despite the tense scenes, there isn't the same violence currently seen in nearby France, where yellow vest protests are entering their second month.

"In the Hungarian case there have been effective protests and movements, but they have never reached the level of 'occupy'."

A large-scale protest in 2014, where thousands took to the streets against a controversial internet data tax, saw the government shelve the proposed legislation.

Union members marched in Hungary earlier in December. Image: Reuters

Students joined protesters over the weekend, rallying against education policies.

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Korkut said while it's difficult to determine whether protests will escalate, the government will continue to take advantage of what he called an "exit strategy" -- the thought that citizens of Hungary, which shares numerous land borders with other culturally similar European countries, may simply move abroad if they don't agree with their government's policies.

"They [the government] are aware people will leave if they are not happy with the system," Korkut said, adding this strategy has been used since the communist-era.

Image: Reuters

He said the opposition is also not offering viable alternatives.

But Csaba Toth, director of liberal think tank Republikon, told Reuters the opposition was now working in rare unity and could build on this next year when Hungary holds elections.

“But if they are not able to come up with something forward-looking in the next few days before Christmas, the whole (protest sentiment) could collapse,” he said.

Korkut believes it's unlikely the EU will step in, because Hungary is not a big EU country, but said it's concerning this type of political regime may become more attractive for other countries.

He said it could also go against the EU's own interests because the labour laws would make it easier for international companies, such as the German-owned car industry to invest in Hungary.

Image: Reuters

For their part, the government has dismissed the protests as a desperate attempt by a weak opposition and foreign-paid activists.

“Citizens have the right to protest as long as they don’t break the law," a government spokesperson said earlier this week.

"But beware when a small minority of foreign-trained activists, representatives of losing political parties and, yes, Soros network putschists emerge hell-bent on toppling a popular, democratically elected government. ”

A spokesperson for George Soros’ Open Society Foundations said on Monday that Soros had not stoked the protests

With Reuters.

Featured Image: Getty Images