Katalin Nagy: The President of the Republic has signed the amendment to the Labour Code. The opposition have dubbed the law which was adopted in Parliament last Wednesday the “slave law”, and have called their supporters onto the streets. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Amendments to the Labour Code are always and everywhere sensitive issues. Aren’t the trade unions worried that employers will abuse the opportunities given to them by this legislation? How do you see this?
Viktor Orbán: Good morning to your listeners. The situation in Hungary is that there’s a shortage of workers. In contrast to 2010, when unemployment stood at around 12 per cent, unemployment has now fallen to below 4 per cent: we are approaching 3 per cent – and in economic terminology, when it drops below 3 per cent one has full employment. This is how things should be, and this is what we promised the public. In 2010 there were two things I undertook to achieve in terms of employment: the first was that everyone who wants to work and wants to support their families through work should have work; the other one was that work should be something that is worth doing, and that those who want to work more should earn more, so that everyone should be able to take a step forward. Now, we had to amend the Labour Code because today employers are hunting for workers, and in Hungary good workers are highly valued and in high demand. It’s no coincidence that for four or five years now wages have been continuously rising – not necessarily because employers want to pay more, but because they have to pay more: if they want good workers, they must pay them well, and if they don’t, those workers will find jobs with competing firms. As I see it, workers gain most of their protection not from our labour laws, but from economic policy which generates a need for them. This provides stronger protection than any legislation, and this is the situation in Hungary today. At the same time, we now see people wanting to work more; but our labour laws inherited from the past impose silly restrictions on them, and so they try to beat the system. Feedback we receive from the employment authorities indicates that now it’s routine for workers to look for all sorts of loopholes and dodges, because the law doesn’t allow people who want to work more – and therefore earn more – to do that extra work. And we didn’t – and don’t – want anything other than to remove these silly rules, and to provide the opportunity of more work to those who want to work and earn more. In addition, of course, we need to ensure that no one can be forced to work overtime: the law clearly prohibits this, and so people cannot be forced to work overtime; anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Furthermore, people must receive the pay they are entitled to for their extra work, and – just as earlier – they will receive their overtime pay together with their regular pay at the end of each month. Anyone who says otherwise is lying, and is playing politics instead of talking about the facts. This is the situation. I think this is a good law, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I trust that it will pass the test in everyday life and in practice, and that it will prove its worth.
In Germany the maximum overtime limit is higher. There it’s not 400 hours a year, but 416.
The European average is also higher. So the limit is higher not only in Germany, but also on average across Europe. But I don’t want us to measure ourselves according to the standards of others: we didn’t adopt this law because the limit is higher elsewhere, but because the Hungarian economy has now reached the stage at which this limit, this restriction on overtime, is causing people problems. It’s not so much a problem for employers and businesses as for people who would like to earn more: they have the opportunity to do so, they have jobs, and then those who want to take on more work come up against bureaucratic restrictions and are compelled to resort to tricks. This is what we wanted to put an end to, and I believe that this will be good for people.
Could a change like this also be important in terms of competitiveness? A German company where workers are allowed to work up to 416 hours of overtime a year will clearly be much more productive.
Although opponents tend to claim the opposite, I think that to date this has essentially been a problem for small and medium-sized enterprises. Large companies always find a solution: they reorganise their schedules and shifts. This is a problem for small and medium-sized enterprises. And the employment authorities also usually collar smaller businesses rather than the large ones which can skilfully avoid such rules and which have well-paid lawyers. So I see this law as being good not so much for employers, but for workers – and not so much for foreign investors, but primarily for Hungarian small and medium-sized enterprises. By the way, now that we have enough jobs – and after a few more future investments every job vacancy in Hungary will be taken – the essence of our task in terms of competitiveness will be to promote the creation of better-paying enterprises to replace those which pay less, and to see more modern businesses replace less modern ones. This means that qualitative improvements must be implemented in the labour and investment markets, because the supply of workers has run dry. From now on we’ll be working with the same number of workers as now, and if we want to improve – if we want to have a better life, if we want to be competitive – we’ll have to improve the quality of jobs and train our workers so that they can perform work of ever higher value. This will be the task for the coming years.
What’s your assessment of what happened in Parliament last Wednesday: the obstruction tactics by the opposition? I’m not sure that over the past twenty-eight years we’ve seen anything like an MP going up to you and pushing his phone in your face.
Well, we all know unpleasant characters like that in our private lives. It sometimes even happens that in one’s family there are blighters, or – I don’t know quite how to put it – unpleasant characters who want to draw attention to themselves by standing eyeball to eyeball with you and going out of their way to create a scene. Meanwhile one’s family and friends look on in embarrassment, wondering how to deal with them. One is sorely tempted to send them packing, but one doesn’t not want to be rude, because then one descends to their level. So one is left with two options: either one walks away and leaves them to themselves, which is the best option; or you put up with them. In the legislature we couldn’t leave our seats, because that was exactly what this struggle was about: whose nerves would hold out longer, who would see it through. This contest cannot be won with action, but only with patience and perseverance. This is not the time to act, strike back or make a show of strength. In such a situation strength is far more a question of patience, biding one’s time, and “keeping the show on the road”. We had to stand like this in Parliament for three hours, during which we were under siege. It’s one thing that they blew whistles and pushed their mobile phones in our faces, but someone actually sat in my chair and put their hand over my voting button, trying to prevent me from voting. These are more serious matters that also have legal implications. This is not a game, and Parliament is not a circus. The people didn’t send us there to create scandals, but to do our jobs. I’ve been in opposition myself. We spent two separate eight-year periods in opposition. Yes, it’s not a nice feeling when you present your arguments and you believe you are right, but the governing majority still passes a law on the basis of arguments that you think are inferior to yours. This is what we thought during our years in opposition. But that’s the way things are. Then you have to talk to the people, you have to prove that your position is right, and your programme is better, and you have to fight to earn the trust of the people. You cannot block legislation with scandalous behaviour if on the other side there are people who are as determined as we are. And we didn’t use physical force: they were the ones who used physical force in Parliament, not allowing the Speaker to take his seat; but still we found a way for the session to carry on and to pass legislation. All I would like to tell voters is not to worry, not to be outraged. Whatever the opposition may do, they can rest assured that the governing parties will never lose their nerve. We will take things nice and slowly, and complete our job at the correct pace.
Yes, but they’re also organising a demonstration for today, as they’ve done over the past few days. We’ve seen the video footage: for instance, millions of forints of damage was done in Kossuth tér [outside Parliament] – including to a recently erected statue group. At this time of year, with Christmas approaching, one wonders what sort of people would break, kick around and set fire to wooden sledges intended to be donated to children in need.
Well, first of all, we should point out that the debate on the Labour Code was clearly only an excuse. But this didn’t surprise me, as we heard the same hysterical screaming when we gave the IMF their marching orders, and our opponents said that we would face collapse; then we reduced taxes, and they said that the budget would collapse; next we said we need public works programmes, and they started talking about “slave labour”. Incidentally, I’d just point out that slaves don’t receive salaries. It sounds good when the opposition delivers thunderous, untrue declarations. This is nothing out of the ordinary, either in Hungarian or international politics. This has always been the case, whenever we’ve been about to make a momentous decision: whenever the Government has declared its resolve and made such decisions, the opposition have always announced the impending end of the world. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and in everyday life it has turned out that tax reductions are good, it was right to give the IMF their marching orders, and the public works programmes have proved their worth. So I believe that we have all the empirical evidence that we need in order to maintain calm nerves and cool deliberation when others claim that our measures will ruin the Hungarian economy. Incidentally, at times like this the people declaring the end of the world are the ones who truly did ruin the country. I’m not sure if you remember that not too long ago they staged a “hunger march”. This was led by opposition politicians who – as we later found out – were secretly keeping hundreds of millions of forints in bank accounts in Vienna. So in Hungary the possibilities for opposition chicanery are almost limitless. I think that the Labour Code is an excuse for these activities, rather than a true explanation. Actually, I understand the demonstrators, and it’s important to pay attention to them, to listen to them. As I’ve mentioned, we were also in opposition – indeed we were even in opposition under communism, as opponents of the regime. Later we spent two periods of eight years each as an opposition party in Parliament. There are times – and I know the feeling – when one believes that one is right about an important matter, and yet one’s voice doesn’t have enough influence. And then one holds protests and demonstrations, and seeks to lend influence to one’s opinion. But I think that this must be kept clearly distinct from acts of vandalism – such as damaging the statue of Kossuth. What did poor Lajos Kossuth do to deserve this? What was his offence, why did he – or the unfortunate Christmas tree – deserve this vandalism? Even under communism, when the police were given new Yamahas with which they threatened to run us down, we didn’t shout anything like “Let’s see the police burn, let’s see the tree burn!”, as the protesters did now. Instead, we shouted back at the police “We bought you those Yamahas!” That’s a big difference. I remember sharing a police cell with Gáspár Miklós Tamás after a demonstration; but we hadn’t attacked the police. So I think that vandalism and violence the must be kept distinct from the expression of political opinions. Everyone is free to state their political opinions – including through demonstrations – but violence and acts of vandalism are permitted to no one. Therefore I believe that this was more of an excuse. I also see signs of this internationally: it’s not only happening in Hungary, because anti-immigration governments of the right are now under fire everywhere. This is also what has been happening in Vienna, where I was recently. Over there a demonstrator even climbed onto the roof of a ministry building and started a fire. And by the way, in my view this practice of throwing smoke bombs at the police also has serious legal implications. It is also symbolic, because smoke bombs are designed to reduce visibility, so that we cannot see reality and the truth – after all, why on earth would anyone need a smoke bomb to conceal what is happening? Well-intentioned people never throw smoke bombs. But the same thing has happened in Italy, where there has been a big demonstration against the anti-immigration Salvini government – or rather Interior Minister Salvini’s legislative package. So I see that international networks are also active in the background. It’s obvious that some of the demonstrators – the most aggressive and active of them – are in the pay of George Soros, and are working as part of an international network – if you can refer to what is going on in Hungary, Vienna or Italy as work.
You say we need to be patient, and also when faced with street violence. It is enough to hear that no demonstrators were injured, but more than ten police officers were.
A clear demonstration of this is 2006, and I remember that when the socialists were in government, the news was full of people with bloodied heads. Orders were given for a charge by mounted police against peaceful demonstrators, and baton rounds were fired at them. Now I’ve asked the Interior Minister to ensure that the police act firmly but patiently. And we should thank the police for having done just that, because it’s easy to say things like this, but it’s different to be there: the police stand there while aggressive people who are clearly prepared to use violence run at the police lines, shout obscenities at them, and even physically assault them – and police officers really are being injured while performing their duty to protect peaceful and normal people. All this has happened now, and I salute the conduct of the police. I’ve also observed international incidents lately, and this is not how the police tend to behave in Western Europe. Or imagine what happened here at MTVA [the Hungarian public service broadcaster] happening, say, in Germany: if MPs from the left-wing party Die Linke and the right-wing AfD were to join forces and storm into the building of Germany’s public service television. What would happen? I don’t think they’d be treated the same way as here. Over there they’d get rough justice. I don’t think the German police take such things lightly. So I think that even by international standards the Hungarian police committed themselves to responding to events in a manner that was patient to the point of threatening their own safety. I wish them fortitude, patience, strong nerves and calm composure over the coming days, weeks and months – or who knows how long – in the face of this kind of provocation. I want police officers to know that the Government stands behind them, and that they can count on the Government. And I very much hope that Hungary’s judicial bodies and authorities will show calm and restraint in clearly defining the lawful boundaries outside which legal consequences must be accepted.
Last weekend there was an EU summit in the last days of Austria’s current presidency of the European Council. Following that – this week – there was an Africa summit which revealed that Europe appears to be lagging somewhat in terms of investment, as the African continent not only needs to be provided with aid, but itself also provides opportunities for European businesses to make profitable investments. China is doing very well in this department, isn’t it?
Yes, but on this issue it’s important for Hungary to know its place. We need to understand the world and know what is going on there: we must take global developments into consideration when making our decisions. But we shouldn’t believe that we are determining world politics. I don’t like to call Hungary a small country, because if I look at our neighbours, I see Hungary as a stronger or bigger country. Also in a European context, we are a country of the size of Belgium [in population], and that shouldn’t be described as small. At the same time, there’s no sense in seeing our country as being especially large, and when we take on an international role or take part in international decisions, we must know our place. This is a good approach – both in one’s private life, as well as in the life of a state. Now, where is Hungary’s place on the issue of Africa? First of all, Hungary’s place is defined by the fact that, as we can see, Africa’s population will double: by 2050 there will be more than 2 to 2.5 billion people on that continent. We also see that, at this point in time, over there they’re unable to organise their lives, and they’re unable to provide for this many people. There are some conclusions we must draw from this. The first is that – should there be a population outflow – we must prepare ourselves to be able to defend Hungary’s borders. Because while I understand the situation in Africa, that is no reason for us to allow them to flood Europe – or Hungary for that matter – with an invasion. So in the coming decades we must prepare to maintain our ability to halt at Hungary’s borders the large masses of people who will be heading for Hungary – or will be heading for Europe, but intend to travel through Hungary. Politically and legally we are capable of this, and we also have the necessary strength. The second thing is that we must provide help for the people in Africa, so that they don’t have to come here. We can offer as much help as our economic capacity allows. Here I should mention that today there are nine hundred African students studying in Hungary with full scholarships: in total, there are some 2,500 to 3,000 African university students here, and the Hungarian state is providing scholarships for nine hundred of them. Now, there would be plenty of room for nine hundred scholarships for Hungarian youngsters, and many of them would be happy to study with state scholarships. We are part of the world, however, and we must all play a part in alleviating the troubles of others. So rather than giving these nine hundred scholarships to Hungarian youngsters, we’re giving them to students from Africa in the hope that, after we’ve trained them, they’ll go home and be able to serve their own countries – and that they’ll be able to manage economies which will enable children now being born to African women to stay in their native lands. This is the role we are able to play. We’ve opened a credit line with Eximbank to facilitate business investments, so that Hungarian businesses which want to go to Africa – which want to do business in Africa and want to create jobs there – are eligible for preferential, secure bank loans from the Hungarian state. In this way they are able to contribute to the development of the African economy. What I mean by this is that the expectations we place upon ourselves must be realistic, and we must fulfil them. From what I see, Mr. Szijjártó’s Foreign Ministry is heading in that direction today.
Employers and bosses were unable to come to an agreement on the level of the minimum wage, and were unable to decide on the rate of its increase: employers would find a rise of between 5 and 7 per cent acceptable, while workers would like an increase above 10 per cent. In such a situation, the Government has the right to decide on the rate of increase of the minimum wage. Which figure is closer to the Government’s opinion on the matter – between 5 and 7, or above 10 per cent?
I don’t want to exercise this right. The fact that we have the right to decide doesn’t necessarily mean that we should exercise it. I’d like to wait until the last moment, and I’d like employers and workers to come to an agreement on the amount of the minimum wage – rather than the Government determining the figure through the force of the law: through the power it derives from citizens. I believe that they know better than we do: employers and workers are better at hitting the target and determining what’s good for the Hungarian economy – because they are the Hungarian economy. We only regulate the Hungarian economy, we only create the conditions, the legal framework and the tax regulations; but the economy itself is operated by workers. The country is successful because the Hungarian people work hard and work well, and businesses are skilful and are doing business well. So I believe that workers and employers must agree on the amount of the minimum wage. This is in the country’s best interest. I don’t want to act ahead of them – even though we have the right to do so – and I don’t want to decide instead of them on how much the minimum wage should be. I’ve asked the Finance Minister to try to ensure that these negotiations are productive. We should act not as arbitrators, but as mediators, and should help them to make a decision.
The economy is doing well. What can we expect in 2019? The signs appear to indicate that politics will play the determining role, as in May there will be elections to the European Parliament. What can we expect? Will anything change?
Things should change, because we’re working against a head wind. In Europe I’d like to see winds blowing which we’ll be able to catch in our sails. This is not the situation today. Today we are successful – in spite of the fact that Brussels has been doing everything it can to make us unsuccessful. Therefore we must send representatives to Brussels who represent Hungary in Brussels – and not Brussels in Hungary. Without any disrespect to the opposition, the situation is that the opposition thinks that in Hungary we must do what Brussels tells us to do. Those who vote for the opposition will be sending representatives to Brussels who will not represent Hungary there, but who will want to represent Brussels in Hungary. Our candidates are not like that. We are ready, we are fully prepared, and we have named our candidates: we’ll send people to Brussels who will represent Hungary’s interests there. And I trust that representatives who are committed to their nations will also arrive in Brussels from other countries in larger numbers than earlier, and that we’ll be able to change the direction of the wind in Europe. That would also mean that we would also be able to develop far better economically, as today Brussels is pursuing economic policies which are unfavourable for the Hungarian national economy, and it is applying double standards. This is not simply a matter of politics – although migration is the most important issue, because everything depends on security; there are also economic issues in play. The elections will also decide whether we will be able to change economic policy thinking in Brussels, and to create an environment there that is more favourable for Hungary. We have a good chance of doing this; this is a realistic goal, and one worth fighting for.
Will next year be a good one for us?
We’ve had a strong year. As a starting point perhaps we should look back. For the Hungarian economy 2018 has been a strong year. I believe that what we proposed at the beginning of the year – that everyone should be able to take a step forward – has been realised. The previous year was also a strong one. I see some clouds in the sky of the world economy, and I also see that people are anxious. I would like to reassure them: all calculations indicate that the Hungarian economy will also perform well in 2019. The Government is sufficiently determined, resolute and capable to adopt any decisions that may be necessary in response to negative developments in the global economy, and to adopt such decisions rapidly. In other words, we are able to withstand rough seas, and navigate as conditions demand. The key is always whether people want to work, and whether they believe that it is worth their while to work. In my view, over the past few years Hungarians have received tangible proof that they are capable, that they have self-esteem, that they are important, and that Hungary is a country to be reckoned with. We are able to support our families through our work, we are able to stand on our own two feet, we are not dependent on handouts, and we are not dependent on anybody else’s mercy – except God’s. In Hungary we are able to create a good life for ourselves from our own resources; and this conclusion is true not only individually, but also collectively. I believe that we will continue to follow this path next year as well. So I look forward to 2019 with optimism. I wish everyone blessed and peaceful holidays, and success and good fortune in the New Year.
Thank you. You have been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.