Can there be too much of a good thing?
The government is seeking fundamental change in the way work works in Hungary. It is seeking to simultaneously increase labour supply, employment and the time each worker spends at work. The latter appears unnecessary: a comparative review of European working times reveals that those already in employment work more than the average European.
While the regular weekly working hours are slightly below average, overtime is above the mean. Paid vacations and public holidays are below the average of European countries. Overall, the result is that Hungarians in employment work a lot. There aren’t enough of them, however.
As we have noted repeatedly, employment has emerged as the single most important priority for the government. Driven by the insight that Hungary’s second-lowest employment rate in the EU is no insignificant part of the blame for her economic and social ills, the government has pledged to create no fewer than one million jobs by 2020.
To do so, it has vowed to transform the way we view work. Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claims, will have to move away from the dying Western attitude regarding labour to espouse a more Asian understanding of work.
Of the innumerable, often controversial measures affecting the labour market – the area where the Fidesz regulatory machinery has been arguably most active – many impact on large swathes of society that are stuck without jobs – early retirees, disabled persons, the unemployed. The government is putting the squeeze on these groups to force them back into the labour market and look for jobs because their existential situation is becoming insecure.
In theory, average
Yet, the government needs to push not only demand for labour but also its supply. To do so, it is changing the rules regarding work in order to motivate reticent employers. If employees’ working time is increased, vacation is reduced, breaks are more limited and they may be laid off more easily, etc., then employers might be more willing to hire the masses of people who stream back into the labour market. The question is, however, whether increasing the work burden of the labouring class really addresses what is ailing the economy and the labour market.
Policy Solutions, based on the data of Eurofound (the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions), has undertaken a comparative review of work hours and working regulations in Europe and found that the hours worked by Hungarians are already among the longest in the Union. Extending working time is therefore unlikely to yield the benefits that the creators of the idea anticipated.
Looking at the basic regulations, work hours in Hungary are not high. Basically, there are two groups in the EU. A slight majority of members, 15 countries, allow for 48 hours of work per week, while a minority – 11 in total – allow for 40. Hungary is part of the latter group. Even with the Fidesz government raising the maximum number of overtime hours to 300 a year, Hungary will still be well within the European mainstream.
Yet still working long
But the basic working hours do not adequately reflect Hungarian reality. While theoretically its working week ought to be among the shorter ones in Europe, estimates of the total hours worked here rank the country near the top, with employed Hungarians working 1,848 hours on average annually. Only in Poland and Romania do employees spend more time working.
Interestingly, Central and Eastern European countries tend to dominate the top of the table. There may be a variety of reasons for this, starting with the weaker interest representation of workers in the region, the peculiar phase of economic development in these countries, the political and economic imperative of economic convergence, etc. Incidentally, the fact that many of Europe’s most competitive and productive countries, e.g. Denmark, Sweden, Germany, are at the lower end of the table suggests that the mere amount of work is certainly in no direct correlation with economic output. In any case, the survey of actual hours worked suggests that Hungary needs no further catching up in this area.
Why the long hours?
But if judged by the basic working hours a Hungarian workweek should be slightly shorter than the average European workweek, then why do Hungarians work this long? We can state two reasons with certainty and speculate about the third. The first reason is that the laws give considerable latitude in terms of overtime. Hungary allows for 200 hours of overtime annually, which ranks it high among the countries that actually regulate overtime.
The planned increase, from 200 hours to 300 annually, will place Hungary behind only Latvia in terms of the maximum hours allowed (in those countries with comparable regulations).
The other factor explaining the long hours in Hungary is the relative dearth of public holidays and the comparatively few days of vacation. Hungary has only nine days of public holidays, which is relatively few in European comparison. The situation is similar with regard to paid vacation, where Hungary’s 20 days are modest compared to European counterparts.
The data clearly show that the regulation of working hours is not lax in Hungary. The government obviously has a point that low employment is a major part of the nation’s problem and therefore needs fixing. Nevertheless, commendable as the government’s commitment to a new ethic of work may be, the increase in the already extensive work burden of those who are fortunate enough to be employed appears misguided.