We Asked

Hungary – the overlap with Workers’ Memorial Day. A foundation on which to stand up and organize?

Whereas most trade unions in Eastern Europe also commemorated 28 April because of the uneven effects and implications of Covid-19 on the loss of workers’ lives, in Hungary this was even more emphatic. In 2020, 1 May in Hungary seemed to especially overlap with events and statements made around Workers’ Memorial Day – a day commemorating workers who lost their lives, and a day of advocating workplace health and safety, as well as high-quality jobs. Most trade-union confederations organised online events with health-and-safety experts, participated in symbolic commemorative events, or did both. Although Hungary’s legislation on health and safety is probably among the best in the EU, the state is slow at enforcing and implementing health-and-safety measures, and at acting on legal issues that contribute to a risk of sickness or even death. The occasion was thus used to push for an increase in the capacities of the labour and health inspectorate, while also highlighting the need for proper implementation of health-and-safety measures.

Another big problem for Hungary was that an increasing number of workers – such as platform workers or casual workers who are typically self-employed small entrepreneurs – fall beyond the scope of this law and its implementation. The important presentations shed light on quite gloomy perspectives, but these might also serve as a bottom line from which to take a stand; this also informed the 1 May preparations.

In both 2020 and 2021, 1 May events were organised in online spaces. Last year, three confederations, along with activists and experts, as well as the journalists Partizán and Mérce, organised a full-day online event, titled We Are 1 May, Solidarity Also in Times of Crisis. This included three workshops on the housing crisis and the movements addressing it, on women’s work and mothers’ work during the pandemic, and on the effects of the pandemic on the world of labour. The event in 2020 started with a video created by the union education group Szakszervezeti Aktivista on how Labour Day came about.

In 2021, the youth union initiative SZIA prepared a historical retrospective report. It offered an overview of 1 May celebrations with historical pictures and billboards, and a reminder of the history of Labour Day globally. It shed light on parades and propaganda during state socialism too, as well as the initially more timid celebrations after 1989.

This year, cooperating with the novel media platforms the Partizán YouTube TV channel and Mérce, two confederations, SZEF and ÉSZT, organised an online event that focused on platform work, titled: Is the New Normal Normal? In recent years both the number and visibility of platform workers seem to have increased in Hungary. Issues related to work casualisation, rephrased as bullshit jobs, emerged, yet questions of platform workers’ working conditions were still not publically reflected on. The programme also hosted trade-union organisers from various sectors. Guests mostly highlighted the importance of organising, but stressed other important issues such as the interconnectedness of mental health with organising and workers struggle, both individual and collective. The event was hosted and broadcast via Partizán, but it was also documented at Mérce

Whereas self-exploitation and short term interests under self-employment schemes seem to dominate, and there is little if any evidence of self-organisation, critical media such as Mérce continued to reflect further on this issue.

Tibor T. Meszmann is a researcher at the Central European Labor Studies Institute,  and member of Public Sociology Working Group “Helyzet”, Budapest.  His research is at the border of the interdisciplinary areas of industrial relations and sociology of work, and focuses on developments in Hungary.  Tibor specialized in trade union politics, the world of labor in the metal industry, and more recently on platform work.