Teachers and students protest against law curbing teachers' rights in Budapest

Teachers and students protest against law curbing teachers' rights in Budapest
Police used tear gas against protestors near PM Viktor Orban's office, which is cordoned off by barriers. / 444.hu
By Tamas Csonka in Budapest April 25, 2023

Police used tear gas against protestors, including opposition politicians, trying to dismantle cordons near Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s office in the Castle district in Budapest after a day of sit-ins and protests against a draft bill on teachers' status that seriously infringes their rights.

In front of the interior ministry in central Budapest, the teachers’ union PDSZ called on the government to withdraw the draft, "as it aims not to improve education but to discipline teachers".

Hundreds of protestors walked through the city to the Castle District to Orban’s office, which was cordoned off by metal fences. Scuffles broke out after students and a couple of opposition politicians tried to break through the fence. PDSZ convened a new protest for next week.

The interior ministry, in charge of supervising primary and secondary education, gave only six days in March for social consultation on the bill, which would abolish the status of teachers as public employees, creating a new concept of 'public education employee'. Details of the draft confirm labour unions’ fear that it was drafted to punish teachers for raising their voices against the government in the autumn.

The legislation submitted to parliament would strip teachers of many of their entitlements. It would introduce a new disciplinary regime involving the suspension of salary payments, extend the number of hours of daily and weekly work and require work on Sundays.

To address the dire labour shortage teachers could be mobilised to other parts of the country and the draft stipulates that in case of strikes, affected classes or groups could be transferred to another school, a move aimed at pitting teachers against parents.

The draft also contains serious infringement of the freedom of expression.

The reintroduction of disciplinary procedures against teachers  if they openly criticize the education system also aims to punish teachers, unions said.

One of the most striking clauses in the draft is that teachers can be wiretapped and their computers or smartphones could be monitored by their employers. These clauses are a clear infringement of constitutional rights and would certainly trigger a response from the EU, opposition parties said.

The interior ministry could prolong the school year until July in case of strikes, according to the draft.

Last year more than 5,000 teachers in primary and secondary education quit, according to an opposition MP citing data from hundreds of school districts. The sector is facing a serious labour shortage as more than 6,000 retire each year, while only several hundred graduate each year and many leave a year or two later due to bad working conditions and poor wages. 

The age tree of teachers is also worrisome, as the majority are above 50 years of age.

Teacher salaries in Hungary are one of the lowest in the EU, less than two-thirds of the salaries of other tertiary graduates in Hungary. Career starter's net wage is hardly above €500 and reaches €1,000 after 40 years.

There are 100,000 teachers in primary and secondary education, but there are more than 16,000 vacant positions. If parliament approves the controversial status law, as many as 5,000 teachers signalled their resignation as of April 24.

Some 40 teachers at Orban’s secondary school also protested against the status law on Monday. The picture posted on social media shows teachers, with their faces blurred, holding a huge banner with the caption: we won’t be servants.

Discontent is clearly growing among teachers after mass protests and sit-ins during the autumn died off. The largest protest in years took place in October, after the Budapest central school district fired five teachers from a high school for staging a two-hour work stoppage, saying the move "endangers students' rights”.

The government curbed the right to strike in a decree issued before the April 2022 elections to silence teachers, while promising double-digit wake hikes. The government turned to the European Commission to finance part of the salary rise from EU funds, and blamed the lack of an agreement for not fulfilling its election promise.

In a statement issued on Monday, the interior ministry said that 2023 wages would be bumped up to 23% from 10% retroactively, once Hungary receives EU funding. Even in this case, this would hardly cover the rise in the cost of living as annual average inflation is set to reach 19% in 2023, according to analysts. The government is committed to having teachers’ wages reach 80% of the average wage of people with higher education by 2025, it said.

The teachers’ status law has also raised concern among EP leading fractions.

The amendment would drastically restrict the fundamental rights of the teachers, their freedom of expression, exceedingly decrease their professional autonomy and drastically curtail their labour rights including their right to strike, according to a letter signed by five EP groups (Greens/EFA, EPP, Renew Europe, the Left, and Socialists and Democrats) to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The legislation, if approved, could threaten Hungary’s access to the first payment request under the Recovery and Resilience Plan, still being held back as the Orban government failed to convince the European Commission that it would adhere to 'super milestones' set by Brussels.