Hungary: Lawmakers OK labor code changes seen as 'slave law'

Hungary's parliament on Wednesday approved amendments to the labor code — changes that trade unions and opponents have criticized as "slave law" benefiting employers.

Lawmakers voted 130-52, with one abstention, to pass the government-backed proposal. Opposition members tried to stop the measure's approval by blowing whistles and sirens during most of the voting and blocking access to the parliament speaker's pulpit.

The changes include raising the maximum amount of overtime workers can put in a year from 250 to 400 hours and relaxing other labor rules in a bid to offset Hungary's growing labor shortage.

The legislation also gives employers three years instead of one to settle payments of accrued overtime. Another amendment allows employers to agree on overtime arrangements directly with workers, bypassing collective bargaining agreements and the unions.

Critics say increasing overtime limits to up to 400 hours annually — the equivalent of adding a full day to the work week — is exploitative and a potential health risk for workers, going against the government's stated goal of favoring family life.

The government says more labor flexibility is needed to satisfy investors' needs — like those of the German car companies whose factories help drive Hungary's economic growth — and to allow workers looking to earn more to work longer hours.

Opposition parties said the vote was invalid on procedural grounds — including the fact that parliamentary officials led proceedings from the floor after being blocked from accessing the pulpit — and they would consider possible legal appeals.

Some lawmakers said it was time for more direct action, too. By early evening, a few thousand protesters were marching on Budapest's main ring road, blocking traffic, blowing whistles and shouting slogans like "Mafia government."

"We are going to go out on the streets and we urge everyone to do the same," Timea Szabo, a member of the opposition Dialogue party. "We are not stopping here. We are going to take advantage of every legal option to nullify this law."

The far-right Jobbik party also protested the amendments' passage, marching to President Janos Ader's office in Buda Castle and handing over a petition asking him to refrain from signing the changes into law.