Hungarian social workers protest low wages, poor working conditions

May 29, 2015


“Impoverished social workers are often no better off than the people they are supposed to be helping” – Hungarian social worker

Feeling “cheated and dispossessed” thousands of social workers demonstrated for higher wages and better working conditions Friday afternoon in Budapest.  The average monthly wage in that sector is HUF 83,000 (USD 300).  They are demanding higher wages regardless of position, the introduction of a wage scale, a “career model”, regular reconciliation and that work breaks be factored into their hours.

The demonstration was organized by the Social Workers Strike Committee after two unsuccessful years of holding discussions with the government.  19 different labor organizations created a Social Worker Demonstration Committee to emphasize their demands.

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Exactly one week ago the government, specifically the Ministry for Human Resources (EMMI), promised that from July technical workers in the social sphere would receive additional wage supplements in addition to current wage supplements already in place.  Minister Zoltán Balog said the government had allocated HUF 7.6 billion this year and HUF 15 billion next year for this purpose.

It turned out that of the 92,000 people working in the field of social work, only 64,000 are entitled to receive the one-time additional payment.   For example, those assisting technical and food workers or nursury school nurses, and those engaged in maintenance received nothing.

Empty promises

Minister Balog’s promises notwithstanding, there is no sign of this in the 2016 budget.  And it seems as though promises are no longer working.

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The demonstrators gathered shortly before 5 pm at the Kodály Körönd  in Budapest’s District 6 with “whistles, drums and reed violins”.  Many of them wore black t-shirts and green bandanas as an expression of their dissatisfaction.   Taped to their arms were so-called “social selfies” showing what their qualification is, how many years they have worked and how much they earn.  One could not see many amounts over HUF 100,000.

Child care provider, 56 years old, 38 years of service, net wages 80,000 Ft.
Child-care provider, 56 years old, 38 years of service, net wages 80,000 Ft.

The crowd carried numerous banners and flags.  Most of them called attention to the terrible conditions in the field of social work.

One demonstrator told the Beacon that so long as they could not agree with the government on the “adequate service” they are required to provide when striking, they could not strike, and that the government “obviously did not want to agree on this as a way of blackmailing us.”  Until then, there is no solution other than demonstrations, he added.  An Indian male working in Budapest who joined the crowd for a few moments told the Beacon that there is a need for people to hear their voices and for the government to acknowledge their demands. “The Hungarian people need to start taking responsibility for themselves and for one another,” he said, adding that “the government exists for people, and not the other way around.”

Many brought along letters addressed to the Prime Minister.  Demonstration organizers had asked demonstrators to write down how much they work for and what their work conditions are like.

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Led by the Pomáz Volunteer Fireman band, the crowd than marched along the Andrássy, Bajcsy-Zsilinszky and Alkotmány streets, assembling in front of a stage erected in the Kossuth square.   Several hundred people joined the crowd over the course of the march so that its numbers had swollen to several thousand by the time it reached parliament.

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The hopelessness, the desperation, and the fear

After a short dramatic interpretation of a song by János Bródy (If I were Rózsa), the president of the Trade Union for Autonomous Areas (ATSZ) Andrea Varga took to the stage.  She told the crowd there is nothing left to say, because words cannot express what they feel.  They’ve said it all before.  They’ve spoken of the hopelessness, the desperation, and the fear.  Social workers cannot live on what they make.  And soon there won’t be anyone who undertakes this work at home.  Referring to insensitive comments on the part of undersecretary Károly Czibere, Varga said the government even sought to deprive Hungary’s social workers of a sense of doing good work, and that it was only a “sense of vocation” that prevented many from leaving social work altogether.

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Varga denounced Czibere for stating that many workers should not be allowed to go near people.  She called it scandalous that the subject of wage increases had been removed from the government’s agenda.  “The dialogue is over,” said Varga.  She asked everyone present to express their complaints and embitterment with half a minute of silence.

“Enough of the lies, of the promises, of the division and of the dispossession,” said an impassioned Varga, adding that “the time for deeds has come, and for this reason everyone should join ranks from the teachers to the railway workers to those working in healthcare.

After reading a petiiton, Varga delivered the “social consultation” letters to a person delegated by the prime minister to receive them.  She was accompanied by the president of the Independent Healthcare Trade Union (FESZ), László Kiss, who told the crowd that this was not the first but would be the last petition they give them.  He said they demanded retroactive wage increases from January 2015, and that a “life path model” guaranteeing social workers wages comparable to those of healthcare workers be introduced by January 2016.

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The speakers who followed stressed the importance of solidarity, and urged that famous public figures publicize their tragic situation and that the media support their cause.

Elvir Malicsevics, head of communications for the Serbian Healthcare technicians and Nurses Trade Union, told the crowd that news of their demonstration had spread from Italy through Slovenia to Bosnia.  Malicsevics told the Beacon that they started organizing in Serbia upon learning of the Hungarian healthcare workers demonstration of May 12th, because they are struggling with similar problems in Serbia, where some 15,000 social workers are about to be discharged because there is simply no money for their wages.  Every day several hundred workers leave Voivodina for Hungary in the hope of a better life, which is why solidarity across countries is needed.

After singing another song, Katalin Papp, the vice-president of the Public Collections and Public Cultural Workers Trade Union (KKDSZ), delivered a speech about the working poor, pointing out that those working in this sphere have not received a raise since 2002.  They find every door closed before them, which is why they are considering turning to Árpád Habony, advisor to the prime minister, who supposedly worked as a restorator.  Who would understand their situation better than him? asked Papp.

(Who indeed, except these days Habony is someone preoccupied with launching various pro-government media outlets and rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful-ed.)

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Viktoria Szűcs, president of the Nursury School Workers Democratic Trade Union (BDDSZ), was the last speaker.  She pointed out “there are more of us than at a NB1 football match”, and that while in opposition, Fidesz had demanded wage increases but nothing has happened in the five years since they came to power.  ‘They were able to increase their own wages and there is money for public television, for Quaestor and for stadiums,” said Szűcs.

She said the government has not only abandoned them by the side of the road, but kicked them into a ditch.  “The kindergarten may be attractive but nobody will work there for starvation wages given the huge responsibility,” said Szűcs, who demanded that Czibere apologise for what he said.  The crowd called on him to resign.

She said social workers would continue their protest until they received a satisfactory answer from the government as to why it refuses to address the fact that they are badly underpaid.  She said that if the Prime Minister is evaluating the government’s performance over the past five years, it has been unsatisfactory.

Before singing the national anthem, the trade union leaders together took to the stage to show that they cannot be divided.

Impoverished social workers are often no better off than the people they are supposed to be helping, pointed out one of the protesters.