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Hungarian trade unions bare teeth in rare strike wave

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Racalmas (Hungary) (AFP)

"It's like trench warfare in there," said Tamas Szekely, a Hungarian trade union leader outside Korean-owned tire-maker Hankook's plant, the latest flashpoint in a strike wave that has hit Hungary's automotive sector this year.

"We want decent pay, and respect," 30-year-old production line worker Viktoria Kovacs told AFP at the factory gate, adding that she earns 160,000 forints (around 500 euros, $560) a month, just over Hungary's minimum wage.

Workers at the plant at Racalmas, 75 kilometres (47 miles) south of the capital Budapest, reported that management had threatened to sack striking workers.

But after a 10-day stand-off the firm confirmed to AFP that the workers' demand for a double-digit hike in basic pay had been granted.

"People are realising that trade unions are needed," said Szekely, head of the Chemical Workers Federation (VDSZ) that organised the strike.

The current unrest was sparked in January by workers at an engine factory of German giant Audi in the western city of Gyor.

Their week-long stoppage led to production being ground to a halt at the firm's German headquarters in Ingolstadt -- and won them their pay demand.

Since then several other German and Asian automotive companies including Bosch, Continental and Suzuki have agreed terms with staff who threatened similar shutdowns.

"It's a more challenging environment for employers now," Wolfgang Stein, head of Bosch's Hungarian unit, admitted to AFP.

- Spanners in the works -

Such behaviour signals a shift for Hungary's trade unions, more usually known for their pliancy and corruption.

One ex-leader famously splurged members' fees on lavish furniture for his office, including a 1,000-euro wall clock.

"Before, trade unions were seen as organising aerobics classes and not much more," Zoltan Pogatsa, a political economist, told AFP.

"But a new brand of leader has replaced the corrupt old guard, while fragmented groups have merged into more powerful units," he said.

However, unionisation rates among Hungarian workers are still some of the lowest in the EU, at around eight percent of workers.

But Laszlo Kordas, head of the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation (MASZSZ), says workers are signing up after seeing the recent results.

Union mobilisation has also spread beyond the key automotive sector which accounts for more than 20 percent of Hungary's GDP and where workers have traditionally been more organised.

Major retailers like Tesco and Spar, Budapest's transport company, and public service employers including the police service have all faced swelling worker discontent since January.

Kordas, 50, told AFP a "more combative trade union community" is emerging to take on not just bosses, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government as well.

In power since 2010, Orban has pursued a labour-intensive economic model, hinged on luring large multinational firms to Hungary with secretive so-called "strategic partnership agreements" based around low labour costs and juicy tax breaks.

Hungarian unemployment is now among the lowest in Europe, and according to official data wages are growing dynamically.

But salary levels have fallen behind those in regional neighbours like Slovakia, a gap that has fuelled the discontent in Hungary.

"Why should a Volkswagen Group worker in Slovakia be paid more than his Hungarian counterpart doing the same job with the same technology?" said Kordas.

Meanwhile labour code reforms have squeezed the right to strike and increased the amount of overtime employers can demand from staff, a move that triggered union outrage and large street protests in December.

"Lawmakers have ignored us, so we decided no more compromise, and that unless we get double-digit pay-rises, we go to factories and educate workers about strikes," said Kordas.

- Worker exodus -

Kordas suspects the overtime legislation, dubbed a "slave law" by its critics, "was ordered by big capital" worried about Hungary's acute labour shortage.

In a 2018 survey almost 90 percent of industrial employers said they struggled to find skilled personnel.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have gone west in recent years in search of better pay, while Orban's trademark hostility to immigration means firms are wary of importing labour.

Hankook's Hungarian staff say that the company employs hundreds of Ukrainians and flies in workers from Mongolia on chartered aeroplanes, although the firm declined to answer AFP questions about its staff.

For now at least, the labour shortfall has created opportunities for workers who remain.

"We knew they wouldn't sack us as there is no-one else to do the job," said Gabor Szabo, 31, union leader at the Hankook plant.

But while 2019 has been dubbed by workers as the "year of the strike", Kordas says "big capital won't put up with strikes for long".

"We are watching the lawmakers, and will act if our rights are further curbed," he said.

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